Page 1


THE OFFICIAL SD EZINE Introduction by Steve Upham The Albino and the Wolf by Charlotte Bond Soon, in the Beautiful White by Michael Kelly In the Howling of the Wind by Marie O’Regan Midwinter by David A. Sutton A Chaos Demon is for Life by Paul Kane Anarchy at Christmas by Ian Hunter With Black Foreboding Eyed by Stephen Bacon Twas the Night Before Christmas by Chris Morris A Mother’s Wish by A.J. Brown A Christmas in Brompton by Sean Woodward Ready or Not by Joseph Freeman

Published by

Screaming Dreams The stories in this eZine are works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Cover illustration Copyright © Alan M. Clark 2001 All content remains the Copyright of each contributor and must NOT be re-used without permission from the original Copyright holder(s). Thank you. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from the publisher.

1 2 12 16 30 40 54 59 67 71 75 95


STEVE UPHAM

F

estive greetings to Estronomicon readers around the globe. I hope that you are all enjoying a relaxing holiday and looking forward to the New Year ahead. May it bring you much joy and happiness. It’s certainly been an interesting year at this end. Perhaps just a bit too much excitement though, even by my standards! So I’m looking forward to a slightly less hectic 2009. As some of you may already know, I’m in the process of moving house this week (yes, just before Christmas, I must be mad), so this is the last chance I’ll have to send you my best wishes for the festive season (before my phone line and broadband get disconnected). I won’t be back online until January so you probably won’t be able to contact me by e-mail in the meantime. Sorry for any inconvenience caused. I aim to continue with regular eZine issues next year so please do keep watching as there’s lots more to come. I also have several free eBooks in progress which will made be available over the coming months. The range of SD paperbacks will also expand, albeit at a fairly slow pace during 2009 because of financial issues. But rest assured that I am still forging ahead with my publishing plans. Next on my list are Against the Darkness by John L. Probert and Different Skins by Gary McMahon. Two cracking books which I highly recommend. It seems the UK small press scene in general is suffering a little at the moment, in no small part down to the credit crunch we currently find ourselves in. It’s especially sad to say farewell to that mad-yet-brilliant Humdrumming, as they close their publishing doors to the world. They will be missed! With Pendragon also taking a backseat for a while I think it’s going to feel a little empty until the economy starts to pick up and the books begin to flow again. So please remember to support your favourite small presses as they rely on you in order to keep independent publishing alive. If you still have some last-minute present shopping left to do and are stuck for ideas, then you can’t go far wrong with some books. I’m sure we all have friends and family who love to read! So hop off to your favourite publisher, dealer or book shop and grab some goodies before it’s too late. I guess all that remains is for me to thank all the contributors who kindly submitted their work for this special festive issue. It’s been a pleasure put this edition together. Read on and enjoy ... -1-


Charlotte Bond

T

he snow fell gently outside the high arched windows of the bedroom, white dancers in the darkness. The occasional flake would find its way down the chimney to emerge into the large fireplace and fall hissing on the dying fire. In the corner of the bedroom, an evergreen tree stood decorated with red and gold ornaments. Tiny globes twinkled and flickered in its depths. Alana lay asleep in her bed, her white hair falling over her face. One arm was curled around a stuffed bear while the other rested on the covers. Exhausted from her father’s party, her young mind capered through dreams filled with pillars of spiralling ivy, a sea of babbling guests and endless linencovered tables groaning under the weight of a thousand different confections. She awoke with a start, unaccountably tense and confused. As sleep drained from her mind, she was aware of an ache down her left-hand side. Sitting up, Alana rubbed her arm thoughtfully, then her leg where there seemed to be the most pain. Night cramps were something she was used to, but this strange uneasiness which had accompanied her awakening was something new. The room was in a dark gloom which would have fooled the eyes of many, yet Alana’s large dark eyes searched every detail of the shadows. Her gaze fell upon the armchair next to the fire where her father would often sit and read her stories. Another man was sitting there now, watching her with interest. The firelight threw sinister shadows over the far side of his face but she could see that he had an aquiline nose and a smile that looked as if it never left his lips. He wore a long coat that stretched down to the floor and which he had wrapped tightly around himself. Alana was surprised at his presence but not alarmed. The muffled sound of voices and music from the party which continued beyond the bedroom door reassured that help was only a scream away. ‘Who are you?’ she asked curiously. ‘Good evening, little one,’ the dark figure said. ‘I am Demetrius.’ Alana imagined that if honey had a voice, it would sound like this. ‘I’m Alana,’ she replied. Demetrius nodded. ‘I know. What inhabitant of this land does not recognise Alana, daughter of the Ambassador of Europa?’ He leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered: ‘And the white hair is a dead give away.’ Alana pouted at his gentle mockery. ‘If you can truly see me in this light, I guess those famous eyes of yours live -2-


Charlotte Bond up to their reputation, even at this young age.’ Alana looked at him curiously. ‘My eyes aren’t famous,’ she said. ‘They are where I come from,’ Demetrius said. Alana watched him closely, a deep frown creasing her young brow. Demetrius’ smile had a hint of smugness and Alana could see a secret hiding behind his eyes. If he kept it so close to the surface, she knew he would tell her of it but only when he was ready. But, with a child’s impatience, she wanted to know now and his concealment irritated her. ‘Why are you here?’ she demanded. ‘Did you break in?’ ‘Why no!’ exclaimed Demetrius. He gave a low chuckle. ‘I simply walked in through your bedroom door.’ ‘But there are guards outside,’ Alana replied. ‘Not when I walked through it there weren’t,’ replied Demetrius. Alana glanced towards the door. She saw that the elegant door handles which her father had imported specially for her were twisted and broken, jamming the lock. Her gaze travelled down to a dark stain that had crept under the door through the carpet. Alana turned back to stare at Demetrius’ hands, lightly folded over his knee. They were largely yet shapely, the fingers elegant and long, the nails well manicured. Alana thought about the hands of Rickard, her father’s assassin, on those rare occasions when he had taken his gloves off. ‘Your hands don’t look like the hands of a killer,’ said Alana uncertainly. ‘Maybe I didn’t use my hands to kill your guards,’ he replied. Alana felt intense cold run though her blood. A shaft of moonlight broke through the frosted window. It lit up the stranger’s face so that Alana could see the heavy brow, the thick hair and the slightly pointed ears. What held her gaze however, were his teeth – white, immaculate and too large for his mouth. The significance of Demetrius’ last comment sank in and in her imagination, she could see the shreds of flesh clinging to his teeth and the blood running down his chin. She knew now what he was. ‘You’re a werewolf,’ she whispered. Fear and fascination wrestled for dominance within her. ‘Demetrius the werewolf,’ she mused. He sat silent, waiting for her response. She knew he was waiting for her to scream. ‘You’re not the first werewolf I’ve seen, you know,’ she said dismissively. ‘I saw one last month, in the panopticon.’ She could see him tense in his chair and -3-


Charlotte Bond she felt a flash of cruel satisfaction at his discomfort. ‘It wasn’t handsome like you; it was old and battered and balding. I saw Father’s men beat it with sticks and pikes, before they hauled it into the centre and strapped it down to-’ ‘Do such shows entertain you?’ Demetrius asked. His body was rigid in anger, his eyes blazing. Alana crawled closer, hugging her knees to her chin. Her large eyes regarded him levelly. ‘Are you entertained when your kind rip the throat out of a young boy?’ she countered. ‘A boy who is crying for his mother, lost and confused?’ Demetrius tension did not subside, but she saw it change. ‘Is that what they tell you?’ he asked softy. Alana shrugged. ‘It’s what I saw,’ she said simply. She saw his look of doubt and wondered at it. A silence fell between them, the little albino girl regarding the sombre werewolf before her. She rubbed her leg again, trying to relieve the cramping. The sounds of a string quartet, laughter and the clink of glasses filtered through the door as the party when on. Alana glanced in that direction. Why hadn’t someone seen the dead guards? ‘Did you enjoy the party?’ Demetrius asked, watching Alana watching the door. She turned her attention back to him. Talking was her best option until someone realised something was wrong. Besides, her fascination with Demetrius was outweighing her fear. ‘I did,’ she breathed enthusiastically, her eyes glazing over. ‘Father had bought me a new dress, a green one, and Mother gave me her crystal hair-band to go with it. She hardly ever lets me play with it normally,’ Alana confided with a proud smile, ‘but she said I could wear it tonight. I think she thought I would be sad, because it’s my first Christmas without Alex.’ ‘I thought you looked very pretty in it,’ Demetrius said. Alana frowned. ‘I didn’t see you there,’ she said suspiciously. There was no way such a creature could walk undetected through humans. She was almost sure of it. ‘Not only did you see me, young lady,’ Demetrius grinned, ‘you also kissed me under the pax.’ ‘I did not!’ Alana denied emphatically. Demetrius reached behind his chair and brought forward a large, rough sack. As he pulled out a deep green cloak lined with ivy and fur, Alana realised the truth behind his words. ‘You were Saint Nicholas,’ she said, impressed despite herself at his -4-


Charlotte Bond deception. ‘I sat on your lap, and kissed your cheek, and everything – and I never guessed.’ ‘Maybe your eyes aren’t so good after all,’ Demetrius commented slyly. Alana pouted. ‘Although I am curious as to how exactly an albino child comes to have jet black eyes.’ ‘It’s no secret,’ shrugged Alana. ‘Father hated my pink eyes so he made the surgeons inject me with melanise when I was three. It’s one of the first things I remember – the cold leather straps around my wrist and the pain in my head as they injected the genetic compound into my eyes. My mother cried when she saw them and she wouldn’t let Father see me for a week.’ Alana frowned, suddenly uncomfortable with such revelations to a stranger. ‘So, did you enjoy the party then?’ she asked. Demetrius settled back into his chair. He looked impressed that she had turned his own tactic against him and she felt a glow of satisfaction at her own cleverness. ‘I found the party tedious,’ he replied brusquely. ‘Most people say that Father’s Yule parties are the event of the year,’ said Alana. ‘Ah, but most people don’t remember Yule the way I do,’ said Demetrius with a smile. ‘I remember when you could walk through the crisp winter snow with only the moonlight for company. I remember when we kissed or killed under the mistletoe instead of the pax. I remember when candles lit the feasting halls and shadows danced alongside the guests.’ His eyes glazed over as he lost himself in thought. ‘What’s mistletoe?’ Alana asked. ‘Mistletoe was a parasite that sucked the life from the trees it lived on, its roots never touching the ground. So much better than the pax plant you humans clustered beneath today – a crimson monstrosity genetically engineered by politicians.’ A sneer split his face. ‘Yule used to be a time of darkness and fire. As the nights drew in, people’s minds would dwell on the creatures that stalked them from the shadows. They would remember their old superstitions. Oh, they’d try to dress them up in celebrations, but they never forgot the truth – that they were performing rituals to keep the darkness at bay.’ ‘You remember a lot,’ said Alana. Demetrius leaned forward and she could see that secret within in his eyes again, so close to the telling. She leaned forward herself, ignoring the cramp that complained in her leg. -5-


Charlotte Bond ‘I remember ages past,’ he whispered conspiratorially, his eyes gleaming in the gloom, ‘and I remember a lifetime into the future.’ ‘Don’t be silly,’ scowled Alana. ‘No one can remember the future, that’s a contradiction. She smiled at her use of this long word. Demetrius gave her a patiently indulgent look. ‘You can remember if you’ve been there,’ he said. ‘I have lived through this year, this day before. And I have lived another two decades beyond this. I have seen you as a young woman of twenty-five, Alana. And I’ve come back to see you as you are now.’ Alana pondered this carefully. ‘But time travel’s impossible,’ she said, ‘and even if it was possible, there’s no way a werewolf could think of it. Unless you stole from the humans who created it in the future.’ Demetrius’ smile turned into a snarl and Alana cowered in sudden fear. Controlling his anger, Demetrius leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers beneath his chin. His eyes took on a golden gleam in the firelight. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at your reaction,’ he said, a razor tone edging his calm voice. ‘If you had thought differently, you wouldn’t have joined the League and wouldn’t have necessitated my presence here.’ ‘What’s the League?’ Alana asked, baffled. His words made as much sense as a dream, yet the pain in her leg and the fear trickling through her veins made her certain she wasn’t sleeping. ‘The League is a collection of humans who make it their sole aim to track down and wipe out werewolves.’ ‘But why? There are only werewolves in Canada and they hardly ever get over the border.’ She thought of the ice-wastes of that country, where the sound of the howling could freeze your mind more than the bitter wind. The smooth snow appeared a sparkling silver under the bright moonlight, but only a fool would venture out at night to drink in its beauty. ‘Not in my time, little one,’ Demetrius replied. ‘I have seen my species living in secrecy and legend for centuries. I cannot describe my fury when, having finally emerged from the shadows, we were banished to a wasteland. Yet in five years from now, we will break free of your restrictions. We will race through the long nights until we cover most of the earth. It will be a glorious time, our first taste of freedom but swiftly on our heels will come the League, hunting us down and destroying us.’ -6-


Charlotte Bond ‘And I’m a member?’ asked Alana, fascinated by this glimpse of the future. ‘You will become the most prestigious member of them all, little one.’ Alana could detect an undercurrent of grudging respect in Demetrius’ voice. ‘What do I do?’ ‘Why, for a start, you kill your enemies most effectively. In fact, with your merciless methods you could almost be a werewolf yourself.’ Demetrius barked a harsh laugh at this, but Alana couldn’t see what was so funny. She felt sick at the thought that she might be compared to a werewolf, but she bit her tongue. ‘You have a variety of talents that make you an excellent hunter. Those unique little eyes of yours are very adept at seeing in the low light, allowing you to pick up tiny details which are otherwise lost on your fellow hunters. Your cunning knows no bounds and your traps are quick but brutal.’ Alana was mortified at his description. ‘I’ve seen werewolf hunters,’ she said haughtily, ‘Father deals with them all the time and I don’t want to be like any of them. I’m going to be a musician. My tutor says I can play the lute better than many twice my age. Or I might be a magician – like the one at the party this evening.’ ‘I saw you entranced by the magician,’ Demetrius commented with undisguised contempt. ‘You shouldn’t be so easily impressed, little one. It’s all lies and illusion – nothing compared to the raw magic of nature that surrounds us.’ Demetrius leaned forward and reached out behind her ear. She watched his hand as he withdrew it. A grin spread across her face as she saw the gold coin that had appeared between his fingers. He flipped it into her lap. ‘The only skills in such magic are preparation and deception,’ he said, leaning back in his chair again. ‘Such an illusion is prepared, possibly even completed, before you even announce yourself to your audience. The only task remaining is then to conceal that fact until the finale.’ A smile played across Demetrius’ lips, but its meaning was lost on his audience. ‘You won’t grow up to be a magician, little one.’ ‘I might be,’ sad Alana defensively. ‘You do not understand. The reason for me being here is to make sure that you never grow up at all.’ Alana felt her stomach lurch. Realising he was an assassin was one thing, but it was quite another to hear him admit it. ‘So you are here to kill me,’ she said, trying not to let the fear that was -7-


Charlotte Bond clutching her heart show through in her voice. ‘I am here to ensure you never grow up into the hunter from my future,’ said Demetrius. His voice was calm, unequivocal. ‘Why you in particular?’ Alana asked, trying to keep the conversation going. She scanned the darkened room for a means of escape. ‘Because I was the only one who could insinuate myself into the party, the only one who could blend in until the moment was right to find you alone in your room. Many of my brethren are…’ he paused, chewing over possible phrases in his mind ‘not as eloquent as me,’ he concluded. ‘You’re right’ snapped Alana, fear breeding unexpected anger. ‘Your kind are no better than the beasts in the fields, or rather, those beasts that your kind deign to leave behind when you ravage the land.’ Demetrius gave out a low growl which seemed to crawl across Alana's skin and set her nerves on edge. ‘You’re sadly mistaken, little one, if you think our minds are bestial just because our bodies assume that form,’ spat Demetrius, all his respect swallowed by hate. ‘You do nothing more than hunt and main and kill,’ Alana snarled. ‘That’s all you’ve ever done and all you’ll ever do. I saw you kill my own brother, and eat him, leaving nothing but bones and guts for us to find.’ Demetrius leaned forward, a hard glint in his eye. Alana wanted to back away, but she stood her ground, knowing any weakness now would be fatal. ‘You saw all this did you?’ he asked in a low voice. Alana hesitated, uncertain. ‘I saw my brother crying,’ she said. ‘I heard your kind crashing through the trees and I saw a circle of fur as Father carried me away. He was weeping as he ran, crying that he could only save one. Then I heard my brother’s wailing end with a scream.’ Tears pricked at Alana’s eyes but she refused to cry. ‘Father said he went back and found nothing but bones and intestines.’ ‘We don’t always devour all we encounter,’ Demetrius said in a low voice. There was that hidden sparkle of knowledge within his eyes again which made Alana pause. ‘Some of them we turn into our own.’ ‘Father would have brought him back if you’d done that.’ She could hear the edge of uncertainty in her own voice. She suddenly thought of the creature in the panopticon and of the look of determined hatred on her father’s face as its howls had echoed around the dome and around her head. ‘Are you sure about that?’ The question hung in the air. Alana bit her -8-


Charlotte Bond bottom lip and Demetrius’ smile grew. A sound from outside the door made both their heads snap round. ‘The Ambassador’s daughter!’ yelled a voice. ‘An intruder – quickly!’ As the door handle rattled, Alana turned back to Demetrius with a triumphant smile. Had she turned a moment later, she would have felt his iron grip around her throat, but she turned in time to avoid his outstretched fingers. Skittering backwards over the bed, Alana reached swiftly under her pillow and brought out a slender silver knife. As Demetrius lunged again, Alana buried the blade deep into his arm. Demetrius howled in pain as blood pulsed across the bed. The pounding at the door behind them was getting increasingly frenzied. With a murderous snarl, Demetrius lunged a third time and Alana screamed in pain as his claws raked across her skin. Ripping the knife out of his arm, Demetrius leaned forward, his jaws gnashing impatiently. Alana found herself pinned against the wall rigid with fear, her vision filled with glowing yellow eyes. As the door splintered inwards, light spilled in momentarily before men in dark clothes poured into Alana’s room. In less than a heartbeat, the air was filled with the noise and smoke of a dozen guns. Demetrius’ body jerked violently as each bullet hit home. Alana, her eyes tightly closed, felt herself hauled off her bed and carried away. Relief flooded her as she recognised her father’s distinctive scent of perfume and cigars. When she finally opened her eyes, she found her father had carried her into his own chamber and sat her down on the bed. His gaze immediately found the red scratches on her arm. ‘Tooth or claw?’ he asked. Alana’s ears were buzzing and her head felt fogged. Her whole body ached as if she was the one who had been shot. ‘Tooth or claw?’ her father repeated insistently. He was almost shaking her. ‘He clawed me,’ said Alana, cradling her sore arm. She saw some of the tension ease out of her father’s face; she saw the fear leave his eyes. Despite the cold terror which was gripping her own heart, a little seed of doubt began to germinate deep inside her. ‘Wait here,’ he instructed as he left the room, closing the door behind him. A surgeon came in a few moments later to clean and bandage her injury. He worked without speaking and left in silence. A cold suspicion and dread had been steadily building within Alana. When -9-


Charlotte Bond she was finally alone, she bent over to inspect her left leg. Running a hand down her calf, she traced the pain back to its source on her heel where she saw a set of perfect bite marks. She could see that Demetrius had barely broken the skin, which made sense if his bite had not woken her. Yet Alana knew it would be enough. He lied, she thought. He wasn’t sent to kill me. His words ran through her mind again: The only skills in such magic are preparation and deception. Such an illusion is prepared, possibly even completed, before you even announce yourself to your audience. The only task remaining is then to conceal that fact until the finale Wandering over to a set of drawers, Alana rummaged around until she found a pair of her mother’s socks. She slipped them on. They were far too large but they warmed her cold feet. She went back to sit on the bed. ‘I’m going to grow up to be a werewolf,’ she whispered to herself. ‘And I’m going to be a werewolf hunter as well.’ The thought which followed in her mind chilled her to the bone: if Father lets me grow up at all. Copyright © Charlotte Bond 2008

Julian - A Christmas Story : Copyright © Edward Miller 2006

- 10 -


EDWARD MILLER

Footprints in the Snow : Copyright Š Edward Miller 2004

www.edwardmiller.co.uk - 11 -


MICHAEL KELLY

T

he snow spoke to me today. It wasn’t a soft, conspiratorial whisper chiming in my ears, but rather a harsh, raspy sound, like fingernails scraping a chalkboard. Soon, the snow said. It is winter and I have not left the house in a very long time. Mother will be home soon, I know. She promised. Soon, Rebecca, mother had said. I’ll be back soon. The same words father had spoken weeks before, as if he was going into town for diapers or a loaf of bread. White bread. It all comes down to white. It’s getting cold now. I used the last of the firewood yesterday. So today I lay in my bed, buried under a mound of blankets. And still I shiver, my teeth clinking like ice cubes in a glass. I am very tired today. It was difficult to wake up, get out of bed. And oh so easy to just close my eyes and drift off, to sleep forever and ever, dreaming of the vast beautiful white. When I finally went downstairs more snow had gotten into the house. I first noticed it yesterday. Or was it a week ago? It’s hard to keep track of the days. No bother, mother’ll be back soon. As I passed by the living room window I saw the snow on the inside ledge, a fine white dusting like the bleached ashes in Gramma’s inky urn. Black and white. Sackcloth and ashes. The window is covered in thick ice. Peering through it the world is white, a wall of virgin snow pressed tight against the glass, yet somehow it has found its way onto the inside sill. It’s a trickster, the snow is. There was some small amount of snow there yesterday, but today it was higher and some of it had spilled onto the floor. The small drift by the front door had also swelled, moving forward off the welcome mat -- as if it were welcome -- and intruding on the living room. And as I turned and looked around me it was everywhere, small but growing, no crack or seam impervious to its hunger. I sighed, rubbed my hands together for warmth and went to the kitchen. Yesterday my stomach twisted and cramped painfully, doubling me over, but I saved some small amount of food for today. Breakfast consisted of two unsalted crackers and a soft, uncooked potato. - 12 -


MICHAEL KELLY At first I cut off the yucky part, but then I decided to eat it. No sense it going to waste. And with the plumbing frozen and useless -- the toilet bowl and reservoir long since dry -- I managed to squeeze some moisture from an old rag I found under the kitchen sink. It tasted of oil and lemon, but it was something. The snow came quickly. We weren’t prepared. It had started overnight and by noon was halfway up the front door, making it difficult for mother to push through it. That was many, many days ago. Mind yourself, Becca, mother had said. After eating I went up to my room. When I passed by the window again I saw the snow spilling off the ledge on to the floor. It reminded me of a Disney wildlife movie I once saw; little lemmings jumping off a cliff to land in the water, many of them smashing and bouncing off large boulders at the bottom. That movie horrified me. Now I just giggled. My room is on the top floor, at the side of the house. I went over to the window and breathed on the pane, raking nubby fingernails across the ice until I’d cleared a small oval patch. Ordinarily when I look out the window I can see the swing set and driveway, the large maple, the road that runs by the front of the house and part of the small pond in the unfenced back yard. There are no other houses around. Today, though, all I see is the unending, beautiful white, the snow almost to my window. I can see the top of the maple and the hydro poles poking through the snow like small, skeletal fingers. If I could raise the frozen window could I walk on that vast sheet of white? Or would I sink slowly into its cold glacial depths? It wants me to try. I know it. Oh, to be able to step out and lay on the porcelain-white snow! To make a snow angel. To spread my arms and sink ever so slowly into that thick blanket. I bet it wouldn’t be cold at all. I bet it’d be warm, comforting, wrapped in its cruel beauty. She’s out there somewhere, mother is. Soon, said mother. Or maybe it was the snow. It is windy up here, the attic above me clacking incessantly as it is buffeted by the swirling snow and moaning wind. When the wind dies down and quiets, the moaning continues and I realize it is coming from me. Looking out the window I was reminded of winters past: Tobogganing down long hills, the wooden sleigh rocketing over hard-packed snow, the wind rushing wildly by. Skating on the small frozen pond, gleaming blades cutting - 13 -


MICHAEL KELLY deep grooves in the milky ice. Building snow forts, having snow ball fights. And always, after, we’d sit rosy-cheeked in the kitchen, hands wrapped around thick, steaming mugs of hot chocolate, smiling and laughing, tiny marshmallows floating in the dark chocolate like miniature icebergs. The memories bring a smile to my face and my dry, cracked lips split and crack even further. It doesn’t hurt, though. I can not feel it much. Just like I can no longer feel my toes. So beautiful, the snow. So white. And I am reminded of another Disney movie -- Snow White. So white, Snow White. Though she wasn’t really snow white. I am more white, more pale than she. And just as beautiful. Mother always said so. She’d caress my cheek. Such a pretty girl. A lovely child. And she’d cry. Mind the child, mother had said. So cold. So icy. How can it be so cold? I am frigid. Frigid. There was a boy once, in Bar Harbor, on one of our infrequent tips. He had gorgeous blue eyes and full red lips. On the beach, under the cool-white moonlight, he tried to kiss me. I pulled away, nervous and scared. He left and I never saw him again. I wonder what those ruby lips would have felt like on mine? So red, so alive, so hot, I bet. But I grow weary. Thinking makes me tired. I should rest now, close my eyes and slip into the beautiful white. Before my lids slip shut I glance over at the corner, at the crib, at the small, still bundle that no longer cries. And I picture the smooth, white skin and pink flesh and a hunger pain wracks my stomach. I close my eyes. Mother will be back soon, I hope. Soon, I pray. Soon. Copyright © Michael Kelly 1999 This story originally appeared in Sackcloth & Ashes #5, Sept. 1999.

http://lonesome-crow.livejournal.com

- 14 -


ANNE STOKES

Magical Arrival : Copyright Š Anne Stokes 2008

www.annestokes.com - 15 -


MARIE O’REGAN

T

he old man watched as the child pressed close to the window, staring wide-eyed at the falling snow – flakes large and small dancing in the moonlight. He shivered as a sudden draught swept into the room; the door swinging inward as if presaging the arrival of something wondrous. It was nothing. “Just the wind,” he muttered to himself. The child turned towards him, his eyes full of questions; and the old man felt his spine turn to ice. “What is it, Grandpa?” “Nothing…it’s nothing, child. Just the wind.” The boy stared at the door, and sighed as it swung shut once more. “Do you think they’ll come?” The old man nodded, clearing his throat as he gestured at the room – the gifts under the tinsel-laden tree, the mantel groaning with cards and pine garlands, complete with golden bells and red velvet bows. “Of course. It’s Christmas Eve. Why wouldn’t they come?” The boy said nothing, just stared at his grandfather with an intensity he found unnerving. The old man leaned forward, tried again. “They’re your parents, Matthew, of course they’ll come.” This time the boy responded. “How can you be sure?” “They love you. You are…” he hesitated, suddenly unsure, then continued, “…their flesh. Their blood.” He reached out to the boy, who skirted his grasp and hovered just out of reach. “Trust me. They’ll be here.” The wind howled as if the skies themselves were in pain, and the boy’s gaze shifted to the fireplace, where the wind whispered in sympathy. “I don’t like the sound the wind makes in the chimney.” “What do you mean?” The boy smiled briefly at him, nervous; aware of how fanciful his words sounded. “It cries.” The old man laughed heartily at that. A little too heartily. “It’s just air, Matthew. Just air.” He sat back in his armchair with a sigh and gripped the armrests tightly, taking comfort in feeling the worn fabric under his fingers. On nights like this he drew strength from the feel of the fire warming his skin, the grooves his weight had worn in the chair over the years, the touch of cloth against his body. This was what counted, what was real…he cared nothing for - 16 -


MARIE O’REGAN what lay beyond the confines of his refuge. Lights swept across the window suddenly, then were gone. Matthew ran back to the window and pressed his face to the glass. “Grandpa! It’s them!” The bell stayed silent, and there were no voices at the door. The boy’s smile faded as he surveyed the empty street. The old man watched as the child raised his hand and laid it flat against the icy pane as if he wanted to melt the ice with its warmth. He called the boy’s name, softly, but he didn’t answer. He almost didn’t hear the boy’s sob, muffled as it was by the sudden shriek of wind that battered the house, rattling the windows in their ageing frames. “Matthew.” The boy said nothing. “Matthew, come here… Please.” This time the boy came, reluctant, and the old man could see the pain etched on his face. He ached to stroke the child’s cheek, hold him close – but that was impossible for a child like Matthew. All he could do was talk to him, and this he did willingly. “You’re a good boy, Matthew. And they love you, even now. If there’s a way for them to get here – to get to you – they will.” The boy nodded, but his disbelief shone through. It was in the slump of his shoulders, the way his eyes slid away from his grandfather’s, the sorrow on his face. He turned away, and went back to his puzzle, sitting hunched over it on the living room floor. The old man loved his grandson, always had. Gazing at the forlorn figure bent over his jigsaw he offered up a silent prayer, Please God, let them get through. The chiming of the clock on the mantel woke the old man up, and he heaved himself out of his chair, huffing. Moving around wasn’t as easy as it used to be, he found. The clock said it was nine pm, and the shadows flickering on the walls confirmed the day’s passing. The fire crackled in the hearth, and Matthew was still working on his puzzle, his little face solemn but determined. It wasn’t natural for a child to be so quiet, he mused. It didn’t seem right, although he knew Matthew was perfectly happy – lost in his own little world, where he had always been happiest; never more so than now. Wandering over to the window, he stared out at the poorly-lit street. Snow - 17 -


MARIE O’REGAN had drifted against the walls and hedges, he saw, the parked cars buried almost to the tops of their wheels. The snow on the road itself was pristine, no traffic had disturbed it – and it would be morning, probably, before the gritters reached this far out from town. He sensed the boy’s eyes on him and turned, forcing a smile. “The snow’s deep, lad, do you think they’ll make it?” Matthew regarded him in silence for a moment. His answer, when it came, was terse. “You’re the one who said they would.” “Well, yes, but the snow…” “You promised.” The boy’s tone brooked no argument, and the old man sighed, then nodded. “I did, didn’t I. And I meant it, Matthew. If they can make it, they will.” Matthew’s smile was singularly humourless, and the old man flinched. “Remember what you said, Grandpa.” “About your parents?” “About them…and about breaking promises.” The strength drained out of the old man’s legs, and he fumbled himself back into his armchair. “What did I say, boy?” Matthew’s smile widened, baring his teeth; his eyes seemed to shine yellow in the firelight, and the old man cursed himself for a fool. Matthew drew closer, his mouth close to the old man’s ear. “You said you must never break a promise. You said God watches.” “God always watches, Matthew, you know that.” His voice was thin, quavery, and the boy sniggered as he drew back. “God’s not the only one who watches, Grandpa.” He fought to quell the chill that rose in him at the boy’s words. “What do you mean?” “Others watch, too…” Matthew glanced around, nervous again. “Sometimes I can almost see…” The wind moaned and whispered in the trees, and the boy’s attention was broken. Restless, he returned to the window, and the old man sighed with relief. Matthew had always been such a sunny little child. When had this solemn creature taken his place? The wind sobbed and moaned in the eaves; this old house was far from well insulated, and it found its way through numerous cracks and gaps with ease. The old man turned his head to the sound – it seemed deeper, somehow, more - 18 -


MARIE O’REGAN sonorous. Was that a voice he could hear? The wind seemed to whisper to him, and he fancied he could smell something – a scent that was tantalisingly familiar, but he couldn’t place it. Not yet. Music wafted down the stairs, a piano tinkling somewhere close by. Matthew stood, and this time his smile was genuine. “Listen, Grandpa. Listen!” The old man took a step closer to the closed door, flinching as a gust of wind blew it open. The hall was empty, no sign of trespass – just dust motes dancing in the chill night air. Turning back to the boy, he asked, “I almost recognise it, don’t you?” He moved towards the door, but hesitated at the threshold to the hall. It was dark out there, the shadows thick and somehow glutinous. He sensed Matthew, standing just behind him, and moved to take the boy’s hand. The boy moved back once more, and the old man sighed. He should have known better. Matthew had never liked to be touched, even before… “Who is it, Grandpa?” The boy was eager, but not so eager that he’d come close. The old man yearned for the warmth of a hug from his grandchild, but – as ever – he knew the child wouldn’t allow it. “I’m not sure, Matthew.” He glanced back at the front door, dots of white peppering the blackened glass as the snow fell outside in the dark. It was firmly closed. “I didn’t hear anyone come in, did you?” Matthew looked at him strangely, and started up the stairs. “Come back, boy!” His voice was harsher than he’d intended, and Matthew stopped at once. The old man moved forward, climbed past Matthew slowly, then continued his ascent. The music faltered, just for a moment, and he froze; gesturing to Matthew to be still. He listened to his breath rasping in his throat, his heart stuttering in his chest – and finally the music began again. It was clearer now, and he thought he recognised it. Für Elise. His breath caught in his throat as the memories came thick and fast; how his daughter had loved that melody. One of the earliest tunes she had learnt when she was taking lessons, she had fallen in love with it and played it relentlessly, driving him to distraction even though he loved it. Now it floated down the stairs, bringing images of his beloved girl: Elise drawing, one foot curled beneath her as it always was; Elise at the piano, tongue poking between her lips as she - 19 -


MARIE O’REGAN concentrated on her lesson; Elise sleeping, hair spread across her pillow like a little angel… He wiped a tear from his cheek, and took another step forward, only to freeze when the door at the top of the stairs opened and light spilled out, bathing him and Matthew in a golden glow. A woman stood silhouetted in the doorway, her features indistinct in the light. Matthew made a move as if to step forward, arms outstretched…and the old man’s heart leapt. “Matthew, no!” Matthew turned to face him, his face wet with tears. “You said she wasn’t here! You said we were waiting for them to come!” “We are, boy, trust me!” Helpless in the face of the child’s anger, he struggled for the words to make this right: a way to convince him of the truth. Matthew’s face was all the answer he needed, and it pained him to see so much anger on that sweet face. The woman at the top of the stairs took a step forward, peering down the darkened hall. The old man stared at her, tears streaming down his face. Why wouldn’t she look at them? What more did he have to do? “Mark, is that you?” As if summoned by his name, the front door blew open and snow blasted through the opening. A tall, dark-haired man rushed through and forced the door shut behind him. As the wind died he took his coat off, but first he shook the snow from his shoulders. He raised his eyes to the woman at the top of the stairs, and his face broke into a smile of such warmth that even the old man couldn’t fail to be moved by it. “Elise!” He stepped forward, raking a hand through the unruly mop that fell over his eyes. “Am I glad to be home! Have you seen the snow?” The woman laughed, and started down the stairs towards him. “It’s coming down fast now, isn’t it.” As she reached the bottom he swept her into his arms, holding her tight. Her face was buried against his neck as he asked, “How is he? Is there any change?” Her body stiffened, and he knew the answer even before she shook her head He held her tighter.

- 20 -


MARIE O’REGAN Matthew, sitting on a step about halfway up, turned to glare at his grandfather. “Who does he mean?” The old man shook his head, unsure. “I…I don’t know.” “You do, don’t you! You do know who it is!” The boy ran down the stairs towards his parents, but stopped short of going to them. He turned to his grandfather suddenly, terrified. “But…when did she come in, Grandpa? I didn’t hear her, did you?” “No, Matthew, I didn’t.” He stared at the couple entwined in the hall, and gasped as the shadows grew deeper, swallowing them whole. They were alone once more. The boy whimpered and ran back to him, cowering by his side but not touching. “I didn’t hear a thing.” “Where did they go? Did you see?” The old man could only shake his head – the house had changed, somehow; the wind carried voices and sounds from things unseen, and the night outside was fierce. They couldn’t leave. Midnight, and the old man woke to find the fire sputtering. Matthew was asleep on the rug before it, curled up in a ball. His beloved puzzle was gone. The old man stared around the familiar room, wondering how things had changed, and why. Shadows flickered in the dying firelight, and with them, the room…altered. There was a painting over on the far wall that he didn’t remember, had certainly not bought – it was too modern for his tastes, too bright. The television (how he hated the things, had always kept it hidden in a unit that looked like a wooden chest) was displayed proudly, and it was huge – not the smaller model he remembered. The ticking seemed to grow louder, and he turned to stare at the clock on the mantel. It was still there, calling him, but some of the ornaments up there were new, weren’t they? There was a photo frame that was unfamiliar, with a bud vase beside it, now empty. He went and stared at the photo, felt the chill of the room sink into him. The figure that stared back was his own, a photo taken by his daughter Elise, on his seventieth birthday. For the life of him he couldn’t remember when that had been, and wondered anew if he was going senile. He moved to the window and looked out at a wonderland; the ground was thickly carpeted with fresh snow and the sky was midnight blue, starlight making the snow glow cobalt-white. There was another photograph on the windowsill, and he traced the - 21 -


MARIE O’REGAN outlines of that familiar face – feeling the chill pervade his body. Matthew. A happy, cheeky Matthew – not the quiet, untouchable shadow he had become. Next to this was a photograph of Elise with her husband, Mark; as yet untouched by the world’s harsh reality. These pictures spoke of happy times, and he struggled to remember them…to remember his place in all this. And Matthew’s. He looked back at his chair, and froze. His beloved chair was gone, replaced by something newer, sleeker. He didn’t like it. Yet when he closed his eyes and touched this…the familiar cloth sprouted beneath his fingers, only to vanish when he looked again. The smell of smoke made him cough, and for just a moment the heat in the room was intense – then the chill settled in once more. And what of Matthew? He stared at the sleeping boy, wondering whether to wake him; he knew the child wouldn’t react well. He rubbed his eyes, unsure of his vision suddenly – the boy appeared dimmer, somehow. Less there. He wondered how many more of these tricks the house would play on him before the night was over. He stumbled into the hall, lost in this space that, once so familiar, now felt so strange. Music floated downstairs again, and he cried out in fear. Where was she? He made his way quickly up the stairs, eager to see his daughter, have her tell him what was happening. Elise sat on the bed, clasping a picture in her hands, her face wet with tears. A bedside lamp made the tear tracking down her cheek glisten. The old man hovered in the doorway, unwilling suddenly to intrude on this, his daughter’s grief. A door on the other side of the bedroom opened, and Mark appeared. “Elise?” She smiled up at him, put the photo back on the bedside table. Matthew laughed at her from it, caught in delight at some past party. “I’m sorry. I’m okay, really.” Mark nodded, sympathy evident as he asked, “Can I get you anything?” She thought for a moment. “A tea would be nice, if that’s okay?” He grinned at her, then. “Should have known.” He crossed to the bed, kissed her on the forehead. “Of course it is. I’ll be back in a minute.” He brushed past the old man without acknowledgement, his face set. The good humour was purely for his daughter’s benefit. What was wrong, he - 22 -


MARIE O’REGAN wondered? Was she ill? He moved closer, silent, unwilling to disturb her now she seemed to be resting. She lay on the bed, eyes closed, and the old man became aware of the plaintive strains of Für Elise once more, the CD player beside the bed set low. He had named her for this song, over her mother’s wishes. She had thought it too fanciful, instead of beautiful. He supposed it was lucky she’d loved the tune as much as he did. He sensed movement beside him, and realised Matthew had joined him at his mother’s bedside. The boy stared forlornly, and the old man was saddened to see how pale he was. Elise rolled over, and before he could think what to do, he found himself and the boy back out in the hall, just in time to sink deeper into the shadows as Mark returned. The hall brightened for a moment as Mark went into the bedroom, then darkened again. Matthew and his grandfather stood just outside the door, listening, a little ashamed of themselves. Elise and Mark thought they were alone, and perhaps that was best – though neither of them could have said why. Mark sat on the edge of the bed, a steaming mug of tea in his hand. He shook his wife gently. “Elise, wake up. Your tea.” She opened her eyes and stared blankly at him for a moment, then smiled and sat up, taking the cup. “I must have drifted off.” “Not surprising, love. You must be exhausted.” Her smile faded as she tried not to cry. “I’ll rest when he wakes up.” Mark opened his mouth as if to speak…and then closed it again. This was old ground, gone over too many times already. The wounds were fresh, just under the surface, and he had no wish to open them again. The phone shrilled, and Elise dropped her cup. Matthew sat on the hearth, his arms wrapped tightly around him. He stared up at his grandfather. “Where did they go, Grandpa?” “I don’t know, boy.” He was staring out of the window, at the tracks their car had left in the snow as it screeched out of the drive. “I don’t know.” Matthew wasn’t about to give up. “But it’s late – the middle of the night. Why didn’t they check I was alright, or take me with them?” - 23 -


MARIE O’REGAN The old man could only shake his head. “I suppose because they knew I’d look after you.” He sat down heavily, relieved to find the room back as he remembered. “But they should have told us, that’s true.” The house was dark, and cold, but neither moved to turn a light on, or lay the fire. Time passed, shadows fell. And the wind was screaming. Elise stared at the shape in the bed before her, so pale and weak. She could barely take in the doctor’s words. “He’s been showing signs of waking, Mrs. Banks. Very slight…but definitely there.” A monitor went off again, and nurses bustled, clustering around their patient. He still hadn’t moved. She felt a hand rest on her shoulder, and another snake round her waist. She leaned back – grateful for Mark’s warmth. He kissed her hair. “What do you think, Mark? Will he wake up?” He sighed. “I don’t know, darling. But God, I hope so.” “It’s been so long…” Elise’s voice cracked, and she put a hand to her mouth; desperate to contain her grief. Mark nodded. “I know.” They looked on, then, as the doctors worked; and they waited and watched, as they had for so long – forlorn in the hope that this time, maybe this time, hope would win. Dawn was breaking through the living room window, its watery rays struggling to illuminate the cold and stark room, where Matthew and his grandfather sat waiting. As the room brightened, Matthew cried out – and his grandfather whirled towards him. The boy was…flickering. The old man watched in shock as the image of the lad faded out of sight. Then he was back, just for a moment…reaching out towards him. With a cry, he made a grab for his grandson’s hand, desperate for the contact…and to keep Matthew with him. Too late. Elise was exhausted. Mark was by her side, and they leant on each other as they searched for some sign of the doctors’ success. As dawn broke, Elise called her son’s name, her voice shocked. Following the direction of her gaze, Mark saw his son open his eyes briefly, and smile at his mother. - 24 -


MARIE O’REGAN “Matthew!” He was back, suddenly, and the old man slumped with relief. The boy was jittery, frightened…but he was here. “What happened, boy? Where did you go?” “I don’t know.” The boy was staring around him, as if he were trying to fix his position, set it in stone. “It was bright…there was a bed…and my mother was there.” The old man wept. “Did she see you?” “I think so.” Matthew’s voice shook with emotion, the first real feeling the old man had seen since…when, exactly? “She smiled…I think it was at me.” The boy began to fade again, and the old man moaned. “Don’t leave me, Matthew. Don’t leave me alone.” The boy flickered back into view and smiled. “Don’t worry, Grandpa. I won’t.” He grasped his grandfather’s wrist, and the old man cried out at the surge of feeling that shot up his arm. They were back in that room, by the bed, but this time they were together. Matthew stared up at his grandfather, then at the figure in the bed, his face milk-white. “Grandpa, look!” The old man obeyed. “I don’t understand, Matthew. How can this be?” Matthew drew closer to the figure, traced the contours of its face, entranced. “I don’t understand either. How can it be me, Grandpa?” Back in the house. Alone. The old man groaned as he surveyed the living room he’d loved so much, and he remembered. The heat rose around him as he saw those flames lick the carpet and up the walls, the ember of coal that had caused this carnage glowing innocuously on the floor in the midst of it all. He saw, again, the Christmas tree going up in flames, the smell of pine pervading the house as if it were no more than a scented candle. He groaned as he saw his beloved chair blacken, then burst into flames, the fumes causing the old man (he recognised himself, and started to cry) to scream in anguish as he rose to his feet and tried to put the flames out, calling out the name of the boy entrusted to his care while his parents were at a party. “Matthew! Matthew!” He saw the child, huddled on the stairs, coughing; tears tracking through the grime on his face as he called in vain for his grandfather. He saw the hope - 25 -


MARIE O’REGAN in his eyes die as he realised no help was coming. Then he saw the boy slump to the floor as the smoke overcame him, eyes closed. As he watched himself fall to the floor, flesh blackening as the flames licked at his body, he heard the front door as it broke under the force of the fireman’s axe. He felt himself smothered – too late – by a blanket as he heard another man’s voice call for oxygen: “There’s a kid up here! Quick, bring oxygen – he’s still alive!” He remembered the feeling of panic as he fought to stay alive. He’d been entrusted with the child, he had to look after his grandson! Now, as the memories crashed in and he realised – too late – what had happened that fateful night, he heard Matthew calling him; and then he was back by the boy’s bed, watching as he woke. “Grandpa?” Elise was crying, even as she smiled at the boy and shushed him, brushing his hair back off his face just like she had every night since the beginning. Mark watched his wife and son whilst trying not to show that he too wanted nothing more than to break down after the stress of the last months. Matthew looked beyond them, his body frail and his face wan – but he saw his grandfather. And he smiled. The doctors were checking the boy over, this child that had hovered for so long in the between spaces, neither dead nor alive. Matthew took no notice. He looked at his grandfather, and he reached out his hand. The old man reached for the boy’s fingers, clasped his hand in his own even though he knew neither of them could really feel it. He tried to explain, to make it right. “I was supposed to look after you, Matthew.” “You did, Grandpa. It wasn’t your fault.” Elise frowned, worried. “What wasn’t Grandpa’s fault, Matthew?” “The fire. He thinks he didn’t look after me.” Elise shook her head. “The fire was no one’s fault, darling. A fluke, that’s all. Your grandfather would never intentionally let you get hurt.” Matthew nodded. “I know, but he thinks it was.” “He does?” Mark drew closer, leant over his son. “Can you remember the fire, son? Can you remember anything?” He exchanged glances with his wife, fearful of the answer. - 26 -


MARIE O’REGAN Matthew shook his head. “No, nothing. I was coughing, then it was dark.” His face brightened as he did, indeed, remember something. “I remember Grandpa, he’s been with me.” “He has?” Eager to soothe the child, and close this chapter, his parents played along. They had no wish to lose him again if he was stressed, they just wanted to forget – and move on. “All the time,” Matthew continued. “He helped me with my puzzle while we waited.” “Waited?” “For you to come home from the party.” Elise felt Mark’s hand tighten on her shoulder. In the months since the party, while they’d buried her father and watched their son as he lay comatose, she’d blamed herself again and again for leaving them; for being out of the house when disaster struck. For leaving them alone. Had her father somehow managed to stay with Matthew, through all this? Had he stayed by his side? Matthew giggled, and Elise fought to stay calm. “What’s funny, sweetheart?” Matthew’s smile was warm, his delight genuine. “Grandpa. He says thank you for not blaming him, now he can go – find peace.” Matthew’s face fell. “He’s leaving.” Mark cleared his throat, amazed at Matthew’s words. “He needs to go to Heaven, son. He needs to rest.” “He died?” Matthew’s voice shook, but then the smile returned as his grandfather spoke. “Your place is here, Matthew, with your parents. I can leave you now you’re back with them; it’s where you belong.” “But where will you go, Grandpa? When will I see you again?” “I’m going home, son. And I’ll always be watching you, never fear.” The old man started to fade, and Matthew’s face fell. He buried his face against his mother’s chest, feeling her wrap her arms around him. His grandfather smiled, and nodded, and pointed out of the window, at the snow. “Go home, Matthew. It’s Christmas, and your parents have everything ready, just waiting for you.” Matthew sniffed back a tear as his grandfather faded, and looked up at his parents. “It’s Christmas?” Elise nodded happily. “Yes, it is, Matthew. Tomorrow…” She looked at the clock on the wall, “no, today, in fact.” - 27 -


MARIE O’REGAN Matthew grinned, then, and waved at what seemed, to everyone else, to be thin air. “Bye, Grandpa. Bye…and Happy Christmas!” Copyright © Marie O’Regan 2008

www.marieoregan.net

Exploring Mars North : Copyright © Marilynn Flynn 1995

A

s early winter begins near the north pole on Mars‚ a hardy group of explorers set out on a hike. Ahead of them lies a chasm cut long ago by floods discharged when volcanos erupted under the polar ice cap. A frozen remnant of the flood partially fills the canyon where layers of ancient ash‚ ice and dust can be seen in the exposed walls. Carbon Dioxide clouds obscure the sky as the seasonal polar hood forms overhead. The explorers are eager to see if the carbon dioxide ice that condenses out of the cloud every winter also forms tiny crystals which might fall from the sky as “snow”. - 28 -


MARILYNN FLYNN

The Neptune Expedition & Pluto at the Edge : Copyright Š Marilynn Flynn 1982/1983

www.tharisartworks.com - 29 -


DAVID A. SUTTON

T

he winter was cold that year. I had come to my place during autumn, when the trees were wreathed in a mist that brought to mind harrowing memories. Their branches dripped with sorrowful tears as if they were aware that some great disaster had befallen man. Only the apple trees in the grove were still joyous with fruit and I was able to feast in that sacred place, and lick my wounds. I arrived with the furs of my raiment torn and stained with dried blood, and I likened myself to the living roe deer that is spiked with spears and struggles in its death throes. My ritual feathers were scalped, my headdress resembling an inexpertly plucked hen. Across my shoulder I clutched my leather satchel, but no longer was there left in it any of the apparatus of my profession. But the cavern beyond the sacred grove on Hart Fell gave me shelter and the fruits and berries of the forest were my succour. And winter came... The solstice night was marked by a blizzard that left a deep carpet of glistening snow throughout the spinney, and the pines on the mountain slopes bowed from the pressure of their fresh, thick white coats. The night should have been one for celebration. Ah, those past years, when I played to my audience with tricks and truths, and brought in the new season. There would be feasting and drinking; there would be the sacrifice and magic... Now no one visited the hallowed grove of apple trees and I spent that night at the mouth of my cave in sombre mood, transfixed as the crescent moon scooped away silver snow-clouds before it, as if it were a giant’s spoon. Although I shivered, I hoped some one would come this way and visit me. Anyone, with whom I might celebrate. They could sit at the fire which burned still within the cave and I would feed them the divine mushrooms and broth and tell them old stories. Even a Christian, yes I would welcome even a disciple of Gildas on that loneliest of nights. For I had not seen a living human soul since the eighth month. By dawn my limbs were ready to crack and my beard was stiff with freezing air. Behind me the fire had died and I too wished to allow myself that luxury. If I sat a little while longer and allowed sleep to overcome me, I might become my spirit self. Then I should fly, fly as the peregrine with its keen eye. Soar as the gull on broad motionless wings, buoyed by currents of air. Streak as the swift and journey to a far country where death might at last claim my - 30 -


DAVID A. SUTTON soul. Instead an eternity of sour memories left me distraught and wide-awake. As I pondered upon my desires, I became aware of movement among the fruit trees and my mood was disturbed. Yet there was no lumbering human form about to greet me. Unexpectedly, a stag came and gazed quietly upon me, motionless except for the cloudy tempest from his nostrils. He was a giant, his brown fur shaggy in winter cloak, his antlers convoluted and rearing above the tallest frozen branches of the apple trees. Presently, he passed by. When the wolf followed the stag and gleamed his yellow eye upon me, without fear, yet without malice, I knew not to disregard the omen. He was so large a wolf I thought I might have fitted into his belly with little discomfort. But if he was hungry, it was not for human meat, and the wolf went about his business. The strange behaviour of the two lords of the forest galvanised me into standing up so that I could warm my limbs with activity, and presently I set off to collect wood to re-light the fire. The foot-worn track, leading from the glade down the slope of the mountain, was invisible beneath the snow. I was forced to use trees to mark my way, and eventually came to the naked bluff which overlooks the pass between the high peak of Hart Fell and its distant cousin. A hundred feet below me a stream cascaded, deep cut into the rock and overhung with icicles. Beside it a path mimicked its course, but hidden beneath snowdrifts. Further down the pass, in more clement weather, could be seen where the track diverged, one fork leading up here, to the sacred grove. I stood for a moment and gazed gloomily across the ravine to the distant snow peak. The wind was sharp, carrying with it tiny ice crystals that stung my face. Ice sculpted one massive slope and drew the eye down along its grandeur. And my eye was thus caught by movement deep in the valley. Seeming no larger than a blackbird at the distance, its clothes flapping as though the bird was injured, some one was laboriously struggling up the valley. He bore a staff with which he prodded the snow before attempting to take a step into what might be a deep crevasse. A wise precaution, even though I knew the route was safe. I watched for a considerable time as the wanderer strove up the valley towards the higher slopes. I wondered where he was heading with such determination. Stopping for a while, he lay on his stomach before the stream - 31 -


DAVID A. SUTTON and reached out his hands to cup a drink of water. He took several. The weather was bitingly cold, but the man must have been thirsty with so difficult a task manoeuvring himself through the drifts. My thoughts were on the whole quite idle and so it was a great surprise when I saw the traveller veer away from the stream, which gave him at least guidance, and head up the incline which led to the apple grove. Within minutes he was hidden among trees, but I did not doubt his intention. Unless he were mad and had wandered off the path through the blinding effect of the snow, the man was intending to come this way. The traveller must know of the hallowed glade of the apples in the mountains of Caledonia. Realising I had held my breath in astonishment, I exhaled a cloud of mist, which turned to minute droplets in the wind and was carried off. Hastily I moved away from the crag and began to scour for dead branches. In a while I had a bundle of wood, which I tied together with some strips of leather I had brought with me. I then returned to the cave, staggering under the weight of my burden. Although in my misery I had allowed my fire to dwindle, I found that there remained an ember, bright under charred timbers. With the few dry twigs that remained I coaxed a flame and hunched shadows of myself were cast familiarly about the walls of the cave. I unstrapped the bundle of wood and selecting the least sodden pieces, I placed these close to the fire to dry. I busied myself and felt curiously nervous at the thought of welcoming a visitor into my lonely existence. As I tidied my living quarters and immersed myself in commonplace thoughts, the traveller approached unnoticed. Only when his shadow momentarily screened off half the daylight from the cleft of the cave’s narrow opening did I realise he had entered. I turned. The being before me was dressed from head to foot in rags. No warming furs covered shoulders or legs or feet. And his head was completely hooded from the weather with simple cloth, its weave impossible to have held at bay the ravening wind. I shivered in horror for the dreadful torment this traveller must have suffered. - 32 -


DAVID A. SUTTON And my visitor shivered too. He was short in stature, though not as diminutive as I, and meagre of bone and muscle. Without a word he dropped to his knees before the fire, which now crackled cheerfully. The traveller stretched out his hands, which were small and quite white with the cold. A skin of ice, which had been welded by the tempest to one side of his garments, now began to fall away and melt on the floor. I stepped towards the fire, so that the frozen being might see me better, thinking that perhaps he was unaware that I was, at that time, in residence. “Welcome, stranger.” When I spoke, I found my voice hoarse and high of pitch, so long was it since I had uttered a word to any living soul. “Welcome,” I repeated, coughing first to clear my throat. Without speaking, and with one trembling hand, the frozen traveller slowly slid back the soiled hood covering its face; and for the second time that morning I was astonished. For my uninvited guest was a young woman. After an hour she wordlessly accepted and drank some of the broth I had heated above the fire. I sat opposite to her and watched her through the flames as she shuddered and shivered away the last lingering chill that must have penetrated to her very soul. Her hunched shoulders visibly relaxed, as did her bent back. Her bone-white fingers clutching the soup bowl regained some of their natural flexibility. I saw all this, but it was her face to which my attention returned. She was noble of feature, with clear, pale skin; beneath heavy eyebrows, large, dark eyes gleamed despondently. Her cheekbones were high and her nose wide, as were her lips. She had her long black hair tied at the back. She spoke at last, and her voice was pleasing to my ear. “I am Olwyn,” she told me. “And you?” I hesitated. Though months had elapsed since the awful day, whose events I strove to forget, I paused to give my true name. The guilty are rarely forgotten. “Lleu,” I said, lying. And eager to know the reason for her travail to this neglected region, I continued, “You have obviously tormented yourself to the point of death reaching this place! To make such a pilgrimage in this weather..?” “Were you at the battle of Arderydd?” she asked, ignoring my comments. Her question stung me more that she could know, but of course I kept my emotions concealed. - 33 -


DAVID A. SUTTON “Why do you ask? It was many months ago and most would rather forget...” “Tell me,” she demanded. Her eyes became fierce with an inner light, but it was not an anger she aimed in my direction. “Yes. I was,” I confessed. “They say,” Olwyn continued, “that king Gwenddolau was a fool to trust the shaman in his dotage.” My heart shook with grief and horror at her words. My king, my patron, had been slain at Arderydd, by his Christianised foe, king Rhydderch. Even so, Gwenddolau’s blood was on my hands. “You seem to have much knowledge of the defeat of Gwenddolau” I said, struggling to maintain a voice measured and without sentiment. “Were you a fighter?” “No.” She spat into the fire and there was a sizzling explosion behind her next words. “My husband was.” I guessed the rest. “He was slain too,” I said, thinking that perhaps only now had she succumbed to the need to sojourn to a sacred place, where she might mourn his passing. “In my arms he died. He lived to tell the battle’s tale, lived close to death for three months. Yet he rallied and seemed to recover a little from his wounds, and I rejoiced. But after our love was consummated anew, he faded... and never awoke to express his love again. Barely a month has passed since.” “I lament for you in your distress. But it is right that you speak of your husband. I can see that you have remained silent for too long. There will be solace in talking about him.” Carefully, I then asked her, “What else did he tell you of Arderydd?” Olwyn sat for a while, her eyes roving the fire, yellow miniatures of the flames reflected in those melancholy orbs. Wiping the dirty sleeve of her ragged coat across her eyes, to stem the first wellspring of tears, she made to speak, but stopped herself. She was dwelling upon her husband, but try as I might to deflect my own thoughts to that subject, instead the sound of battle clamoured through my brain. The field of Arderydd, soaked in blood; Liddel Water running with blood; Gwenddolau’s fortress hard by... splattered with blood... After a while, she said, “They say he was a giant. But ancient.” I knew of whom she spoke. Her mind nagged at the failure of the shaman - 34 -


DAVID A. SUTTON as her tongue might continually prod the iron-taste cavity of a pulled tooth. She wanted reasons, answers, redress. “Myrddin?” I asked in a voice as innocent as I could muster. “The same. Seven feet tall, eight maybe. My husband said – ” “Did he see him?” I interrupted, and hoped the speed with which I did so would not arouse in her any suspicion. In any event, it was clear her husband had not clapped eyes on Gwenddolau’s shaman. Unless legend had fooled him into short-sightedness! “My husband said he was a giant. That he carried sorcery like a cloak about him, but he was very old. At the end, how bitter was my man for the faith he placed in him!” “Yes he was elderly,” I conceded. “Many centuries. And actually wise for it.” “Those long years weakened him.” Her voice was waspish, yet she spoke with assurance, as if she knew her words captured the truth. And I was stabbed to the heart with how perceptive indeed they were. “Perhaps it was not Myrddin’s great age that sapped him of his powers. Perhaps it was the Romans and their priests... The new faith has made us all weak. Hadrian may have built his wall to protect his empire from the thirteen kings of the north, but still the Christians ventured beyond it, and their miasma has swept aside many of our kind.” Olwyn replied bitterly, “There were heroic stories, of Myrddin. How could a few Christians defeat the one who raised the stones and made them fly? And who nurtured king Arthur to greatness?” “Those accomplishments were many years ago,” I responded angrily. She could not have guessed why, though perhaps she wondered at the harshness of my response. “What of Myrddin? You seek him too, eh? Else why are you here, living a hermit’s life? This was his place, you know it!” The conversation had moved on. “Do you then seek him also?” I asked. “To... to kill... perhaps.” Ah, she wished to avenge her husband. How her anguish stained me. The battle of Arderydd had been fought on the pinnacle of my confident predictions, on the promise of the gathering of a spiritual host who, emerging from a supernatural vapour I raised, would take Gwenddolau’s forces through to Rhydderch’s mere human host... and defeat them. But the Celtic spirits failed - 35 -


DAVID A. SUTTON to materialise and the bodies on the field of Arderydd were those of the army that marched with Gwenddolau. I saw again, in my mind’s eye, as the sounds of the dying lay hidden by the fog, the hill behind the fortress rise out of the mist at day’s end. The setting sun gleamed on the row of stakes and human skulls I had raised there. And those death’s heads glowered down with a vengeful and bloody light upon Arderydd. And of the druid Myrddin? Should I tell her that I went mad that day? Did she need to know that I had slunk from the field in dishonour? Wounded I might have been, exhausted and scarred from innumerable fights with the enemy, but in disgrace and raving. “To kill?” My response was sheathed in a haze of self-loathing which, before me eyes, became a wall of congealing blood. “Myrddin is already dead!” Oh how the agony of that desire drove my sad reminiscences to their height. “Dead? How do you know, old man?” Reply I could not, without admitting the grossness of my deception. Yet, to me, it was a falsehood of little measure, for in myself I was surely without life. And if Olwyn murdered me, what satisfaction could she gain for her husband? The satisfaction would, indeed, be all mine. “His spirit... died in the battle.” “You play with words, Lleu,” she replied. “Are you Myrddin’s servant? Why else are you here, in his cave, if not to await the return of the shaman?” My voice was lost. I stared at the embers of the fire and the glowing timbers mesmerised me as I sunk deeper and deeper in despair. “Old fool!” Olwyn jumped up, turned on her heel and stormed out of the cave. I stared at the place where she had sat and realised there were her shoes, which she had removed in order to dry them. A wisp of steam drifted from the sodden fabric as I stood up to follow her. I found Olwyn on the crag, which watched over the valley, her bare feet buried in the snow. Her arms were hugged around her and the wind was visibly bending her towards the cliff’s edge. Lunging through the snow I came within spitting distance of the strong-willed woman. Turning to face me, she said, “You! I should have realised at once. You are Myrddin!” I watched as her voice fought against the growing tempest. “I cannot kill you now, though my heart aches for revenge. You are too wretched a creature. - 36 -


DAVID A. SUTTON You are ugly and a dwarf. My husband must have been bewitched.” And all the rest of those brave fighters too, I added to myself. Did I see into her mind, or did I guess, that Olwyn, having failed to find the courage to murder me, intended to cast herself from the bluff? She shuffled her feet forwards and the slope of loose snow began to carry her towards the precipice. Her arms spiralled, but not to save herself. Instead they tried to propel her the faster, to bring this day to an end for her forever. I lunged forwards but stumbled into the snow. As a flurry of snow billowed before my eyes, Olwyn tilted out of sight. Impotently I raged against the stag and the wolf who had presaged these events. And I called to book the spirits of the dead who had failed to ignite Gwenddolau’s men in battle fury, cursing them for deserting their charges. And thereby causing yet one more death this day. After lying in the snow for a short time I lifted myself up, and followed the footprints of Olwyn to the edge of the crag. Peering down through the howling tempest I saw the stag that had earlier visited me. He was nimbly climbing a narrow ledge of rock that had been laid bare by the wind. Lying across his back, and clinging on with the determination of one who has recently seen death face-to- face, was Olwyn. The stag reached the top of the bluff and as Olwyn slipped from his hide, he trotted off into the trees. Quickly, but with some difficulty I carried the half-conscious woman to the cave. As I approached, a wolf – I have no doubt it was the same as I had before seen -- came out of the entrance and sloped away. Once inside and by the fire, I saw the blood and the still warm body of the hare the wolf had left us. That night I roasted it and the hot meat helped revive Olwyn. “You saved my life,” she cried with humility. Not I, I thought. “You are truly Lord of the Wild Hunt, Myrddin. If he had seen what happened this day, my husband would surely agree!” It had been so many years. So many and I had forgotten that the animals of the forest are sometimes bid by my unconscious desires. I knew then that the magic was returned to me. I gazed upon the woman, conscious of a wonderful certainty beyond her afflicted features. And I knew that the magic of prophecy was also restored to - 37 -


DAVID A. SUTTON me as a luminous revelation made my eyes bright with tears of joy. The wolf and the stag were an omen of death, my death, not long hence, but my soul was to be recast nevertheless. And my next utterance was bold with the foreknowledge, and with unrestrained euphoria. “Eat well and gain strength, Olwyn,” I said. “For you are pregnant with your husband’s child.” Copyright © David A. Sutton 1995 First published by Mike Ashley in The Merlin Chronicles in 1995

http://uk.geocities.com/david.sutton986@btinternet.com

Pluto and Charon : Copyright © David A. Hardy 2008

www.astroart.org - 38 -


ANNE STOKES

Yule Angel : Copyright Š Anne Stokes 2008

www.annestokes.com - 39 -


PAUL KANE

C

hristmas morning. And Jacob Campbell was up at 6 am. He’d been too excited to stay in bed, and had only managed a couple of hours sleep at most. Though he was getting a bit too old to believe in Santa at almost nine years of age, he could have sworn he’d heard something at about midnight last night. The whole house had shaken; could it really have been down to that famous sleigh landing on the roof of the house? What would he get this year? he wondered. He’d been a good boy. Always was, in fact – never got into trouble like some of the other kids. He was too busy reading – usually the latest Rowling, Shan or Gaiman book, or magazines filled with pictures of fantasy TV shows and films. Either that or playing with his model figures. Jacob’s shelves were filled with toys from various horror movies, including those he was too young to see...officially (his very cool Uncle Tom often let him have sneaky peaks when he stayed with him down South). Up there mini-Predators battled Aliens, Frankenstein was frozen in mid-punch attacking Dracula, and Jason’s rematch with Freddy was in full swing – all while Godzilla and King Kong looked on with mild amusement. Perhaps it would be another figure, a bigger one this time? He’d dropped more than a few hints that he’d like the creature from Cloverfield, in spite of the fact he’d never seen it. By all accounts neither had the audience much. Jacob hopped out of bed, sprinting to the door and flinging it open. His parents would probably still be asleep – they were always reluctant to get up early, even on normal weekdays; he couldn’t imagine why, unless it was because they were really, really old. When he raced into their room, though, springing up onto the mattress, he found the bed was already empty. “Down here, Jay,” his father called from what sounded like the living room. Jacob shrugged. He shouldn’t be too surprised, they were after all expecting him to be up at this ungodly hour, just like every other year. They must have set their alarms and beaten him to it, that’s all. Probably meant there was something really special waiting for him downstairs. He wasn’t wrong. When Jacob peered round the living room door, he saw a wrapped box under the Christmas tree – about the size of the chest he kept some of his older toys in. His mum and dad were still in their clothes from yesterday, rather than the usual dressing gowns they always wore on Xmas morning. They looked - 40 -


PAUL KANE tired, but incredibly happy, and were standing not too far away from the box. “Hey there, son,” said his father, pushing his glasses back up his nose. “And a very Merry Christmas to you!” “Merry Christmas, Dad.” His mum echoed the greeting and he repeated it back to her, all the time looking past them to the neatly wrapped package. It was all reds and golds, with a bow tied on top. Jacob’s dad followed his gaze. “Ah, you spotted it then?” Jacob nodded, laughing. “Wanna open it?” Another nod, more emphatic this time. “Okay then…” His father waved a hand for Jacob to go to the box. As the boy approached, he noticed there were big holes in all the sides. He thought about asking what they were, but when he got closer the box moved – causing Jacob to start. They were air holes; whatever was inside was alive! It was now that he had a suspicion what this was. “It’s a puppy, isn’t it?” he said, turning. They’d finally given in to his constant moaning about a pet, something to play with because he was an only child. Jacob had begun to think they’d never listen. His mum shook her head. “What then, a kitten? Is it a kitten…Is it?” “Why don’t you go ahead and open it, then you’ll find out,” said his dad. Jacob needed no more encouragement; he had little patience at the best of times. Rushing to the present, he tore off the wrapping. It responded to his touch, jumping again – or rather whatever was inside was jumping. It was obviously excited, eager to be free. Underneath the Christmas paper was an ordinary brown cardboard box, with a lid. Placing both hands on the side, Jacob lifted this up. He let out a gasp at what he saw. There, curled up inside, was…something. Something he’d never seen before, something that immediately fascinated and slightly terrified him. The creature was about the size of a small chimp, but hairless. In fact its skin was leathery, wrinkled and – in places – scaly. Its wings were folded up on its back, which it was presenting to Jacob, cowering away from the sudden light in the room. Its legs were drawn up tight into its body, arms and hands covering its head; Jacob could see the buds of claws on each tip, creamy-white in colour. - 41 -


PAUL KANE Though easily mistaken for grey, the whole thing actually had a purple tinge to it. Slowly, carefully, it brought its arms down and turned its face towards Jacob. It had a protruding snout and two slits standing in for nostrils which were already slick with mucus. On its cheeks were dotted several more scales, a lighter purple in tone to the rest. Two large, pointed ears flanked its bulbous head, the tips of which waggled as if they were picking up all the sounds in the world, like antennae. It had not two eyes, but four: the first pair in the customary place, the second in the middle of these, positioned above and below the eye line (it looked a little like an inverted cross). The eyes were predominantly yellow, but with flecks of orange and red floating inside, which gave them the appearance of being on fire. Its dual horns were short, nothing more than stumps, really. When it opened its mouth, Jacob saw row upon row of tiny teeth – and a blast of rancid breath wafted in his direction. “W-What is it?” asked Jacob with a nervous tremble in his voice. “Don’t you know?” asked his mother. Now it was Jacob’s turn to shake his head. Well, he had an idea what this was, but it jarred with the reality he was used to. “Why, it’s your very own pet monster!” The creature rose slowly, taking in its surroundings, then looked directly at Jacob, fixing him with its four burning eyes. “It…But it can’t…” “It can and it is,” his dad said proudly. “Took some doing, but we got him for you.” The creature rose, unfurling a length of tongue from its mouth, and doing the same with a forked tail that had been tucked up underneath it all this time. It opened its mouth wider, then snaked out the tongue, which was also forked at the tip, and ran it down the side of Jacob’s face. It tickled, but he held very still. The purple monster wagged its tail. “W-Where did you get it?” asked Jacob. “Chinatown, right? Has to be! Like in Gremlins?” His parents laughed. “Not that easy I’m afraid,” his dad assured him. It took us a good few hours after you’d gone to bed to summon the little tyke. That’s not to mention the months of research that went into it all…Oh yes, we’ve been planning this one for a long time, kiddo. You wouldn’t believe the ingredients we had to get together, either, and we’ve only just finished - 42 -


PAUL KANE Vanishing all the markings off the carpet.” His mother laughed. “Your father just thought, you’re into monsters. You want a pet. Why not put the two together?” The monster had climbed out of the box now and was sniffing around, crawling on all fours. “He’s certainly more lively than he was last night,” observed Jacob’s dad. “The materialisation really took it out of him.” The creature was sniffing the sofa, trying to work out exactly what it was. When it brought its ‘nose’ away it left a string of snot behind. “Does it have a name?” asked Jacob. “Actually, he does, yes. It’s…now hold on a minute, I want to get this right.” His dad picked up an ancient-looking book that he’d left on the coffee table and began flipping through the pages. He stopped at the one he wanted, tapping it as if he’d just found something in a catalogue – which wasn’t too far from the truth. “Ah, here he is – in ‘Chaos Demons from the Twenty-seventh Circle’. His name’s Xzyolocolyopiacocklysis, but I guess that’s a bit of a mouthful.” At that exact moment the creature bit into the side of the sofa and ripped away a huge chunk of material and foam. He began chewing, then swallowed it whole. “Isn’t he cute?” said Jacob’s mother. “I think I’m going to call him Freckles,” stated Jacob, pointing to the lighter scales on the demon’s cheeks. “Freckles it is then,” said his father, slamming shut the book. The creature belched loudly then, moments later, crawled into the middle of the living room and proceeded to squat, squeezing out a huge, steaming turd. “Oh, would you look at that!” said Jacob’s mother in a shrill voice. “Fast metabolism,” said her husband. “I’ll have to get the Vanish out again.” Jacob’s dad chuckled and winked at his son. “Too much fibre is all, and he’s not housetrained yet.” Jacob laughed as well, and then thanked them both for such a cool Christmas present. In fact, none of his other gifts really matched up (DVDs, computer games…not even money), but Jacob would write thank you notes to all the people who sent - 43 -


PAUL KANE them – his parents would make sure of that. Jacob played with ‘Freckles’ for a good few hours, while his mum and dad prepared stuff for the Christmas dinner with the rest of the family later on. He took the demon up to his room and introduced him to some of this other toys – not the ones on the shelf, but his older toys: cars, trucks, miniature tanks and soldiers out of his chest. Jacob had a great time arranging them around Freckles, putting on his very own monster movie, until the creature decided to stomp on the vehicles and eat all the little figures. After that, Jacob tried playing Frisbee with him. He tossed it across to Freckles, who leapt up and caught the object in his mouth. When Jacob went over to retrieve the Frisbee, tired of waiting for it to come back, Freckles held it with its paws and bit into it, ripping away a good third of the plastic disc before spitting it out. “Well that wasn’t very nice,” said Jacob. “What’s it ever done to you?” At eleven o’clock the household received its first Christmas visitor – up until then it had just been phone calls from well wishers. When his mum answered the door, it was their neighbour, Mrs Higgins – a middle-aged widow whose husband had died over a decade ago, and who now relied on the company of her small Yorkshire Terrier, Scrappy. As far as Jacob was concerned, it should have been called ‘Yappy’, because that’s all it ever did. And she took him everywhere with her, absolutely everywhere. Including round to their house that Christmas morning. “Hello dearie,” Mrs Higgins had said, crossing over the threshold. “Season’s greetings.” It was at that point Scrappy, cradled in her arms like a baby, as always, began to yap, and then growl. Because there, on the stairs, was Freckles – staring intently at the dog. The terrier’s hackles rose and it scrabbled about in Mrs Higgins’ arms, though it was unclear whether it was readying to attack or attempting to get away. Then Freckles leapt from his perch on the stairs. Luckily, Jacob was only seconds behind, and caught him in mid-lunge. Jacob’s dad, who was now in the hall and could see what had nearly just happened, stepped between his wife and Mrs Higgins. He quickly explained that his son had a new pet and that it might not be a good idea to remain in the house in case Scrappy and Freckles didn’t get on. “What exactly is that?” asked a startled Mrs Higgins. - 44 -


PAUL KANE “An iguana,” explained Jacob’s dad hastily. Jacob managed to keep hold of Freckles until Mrs Higgins was gone, his dad virtually shutting the door in the woman’s face. “That was close,” he said, sighing. When Jacob let go of Freckles, the demon scampered across the hall to his dad, and bit him on the calf. Jacob’s father let out a howl, shaking off the demon. Then he hit it on the bottom. “Naughty Freckles. Bad Freckles.” He almost wagged his finger, then thought better of it, in case it disappeared in a flurry of teeth. “Come on,” said Jacob, pulling his new pet away. As he took the monster upstairs again, he heard his dad whispering to his mother that maybe this hadn’t been such a great idea after all. It wasn’t until later on in the afternoon that Jacob’s dad began to realise what a truly disastrous mistake it had been to raise the creature. Not till after it had killed Grandpa during the Queen’s Speech. The turkey incident had been bad enough. As they’d been taking it out of the oven, ready to place it on the table and feed the clan – which included two grandparents, from either side; a stuck-up aunty on Jacob’s mother’s side, Mimi; plus her annoying brat of a daughter, Gretchen; not to mention Mimi’s new obnoxious boyfriend Dave, who they encouraged Jacob to call Uncle – Freckles had struck again. Though Jacob could’ve sworn he’d locked the demon in his room, he’d somehow got out and, driven demented by the smell of the succulent bird, had pounced on Jacob’s mother between the kitchen and the dining room and clawed it from the silver serving tray. He’d then run off with it to the hallway, where he proceeded to tear into it, eating great chunks of flesh whole before Jacob could do a thing to stop it. “Oh no!” shouted his mother. “Look at that!” She approached Freckles, ready to give him a clip around his considerable ear, but he gave her a stare that told her this would be a very bad move indeed. “What the Hell is that eating our turkey?” Mimi asked her sister, appearing over her shoulder. Gretchen wasn’t far behind, a horrified look on her face when she saw Freckles. “It’s…It’s Jacob’s Christmas present,” said his mum looking like she was - 45 -


PAUL KANE about to burst into tears. His father came and put an arm around her. “It’s okay, it’s okay…We have some ready meals in the freezer. We’ll manage.” “What an ugly looking thing,” Gretchen sneered. “Look who’s talking,” Jacob replied, and did get a clip for that. He could tell that his father was thinking about locking Freckles up again, possibly somewhere more secure like the garden shed, but after devouring the turkey the demon appeared to be slightly bigger than before. Its teeth that bit larger and more pointed. Jacob had the feeling that if Freckles wanted to, he could probably take the man’s entire leg off now rather than simply biting him. “Come on,” said Jacob’s father, ushering people back towards the dining room, looking over his shoulder only once at Freckles; who’d left another present for them to clean up off the carpet… There was some moaning about the turkey, but in the end people understood – it was just one of those things that happened with new pets in the house. ‘Uncle’ Dave didn’t care as long as the brandy was flowing, and the two grandparents barely seemed to register what was happening. After their microwave meals, Jacob’s mum lit the top of a Christmas pudding – and as he turned towards the door of the dining room, Jacob noticed Freckles was sitting there, watching the flames as they rose higher and higher, cocking his head. It was an auger of things to come. For, when they’d all adjourned to the living room, bellies full and slightly squiffy, the TV was turned on in readiness for their monarch’s yearly address. Something about her voice set Freckles off big time, and soon Jacob realised why his eyes – all four of them – were that distinctive yellow and orangey-red colour. A blast of heat shot from them, directed at the television set. The screen cracked, then the whole box exploded. But it didn’t end there. Seemingly unable to control these new powers, Freckles turned them on the rest of the room, setting fire to decorations, to the books on the coffee table, and melting the angel on top of the Christmas Tree. “Wha’s goin’-” was all Grandpa managed before the ray was turned on him. Mercifully, it was over quickly – and in milliseconds Grandpa was reduced to a smouldering pile of ash in his chair. The laser vision died down. The room was deathly quiet. - 46 -


PAUL KANE “It…It killed Gramps!” screamed Gretchen, shaking. Jacob’s father gaped at the spot where his own dad had been sitting, then he sank to his knees. “What have I done…?” he moaned softly. Freckles, now back to ‘normal’ – or as normal as any demon could be – looked to Jacob and whined. “He didn’t mean to do it,” the boy argued. “It was an accident.” “Well that’s just brilliant,” slurred Dave, gaping at the broken TV set. “How are we going to watch the bloody Bond movie now?” After Jacob’s mum and dad had asked everyone still alive to leave – probably a good idea in Gretchen’s case as Freckles was eying her up as he had done the turkey – they sat in the living room staring at the smoking remains of their Christmas. They remained like that the rest of the day, while Jacob took Freckles back upstairs with him. The creature had definitely grown – it was almost the same size as Jacob now. He listened at the top of the stairs to the conversation that ensued, only catching parts of it. “…told you dabbling in the dark arts was dangerous, Ed…” “…wanted it to be a special Christmas, Lorraine…” “…send it back…” “…remember how? the book’s cinders…” “…have to get rid of it some way…” Jacob bit his lip when he heard that one. They were planning on taking away the best present he’d ever had. Okay, so he was one relative short, but then Grandpa always had been a grumpy so-and-so, and he often stank of pee. Plus which, it hadn’t really been Freckles’ fault. “Don’t worry,” he told the pet when he returned to his room. “I won’t let them do anything to you.” In the end, he didn’t really have a choice. They came in the night, once they knew he was asleep; with Freckles at the foot of his bed. Jacob had stayed awake as long as he could, but after the excitement of the night before, and now the very long day, he’d soon found his eyelids drooping. They snapped open when he heard the kafuffle, though, shadowy figures he knew must be his parents, bundling Freckles into his toy chest. “No!” Jacob shouted, rising up from the bed. But a strong hand held him - 47 -


PAUL KANE down. “It’s for the best,” his father whispered to him. “Freckles should never have existed in our world. I realise that now.” And, before Jacob could do anything, his parents had dragged the chest out of the room, down the stairs, and out of the front door. He begged them not to go, but they loaded the trunk into the boot of their car and drove off. They’d never left him alone before, but he guessed they knew it would take the pair of them to do whatever it was they intended to do… Jacob watched from the open doorway, tears streaming down his face. He waited most of Boxing Day for them to return. They didn’t. Jacob sat in his room, on the bed, knees pulled up to his chest, wondering what had happened. What had they done with Freckles? He tried to push the obvious thoughts out of his head – you know full well what they’ve done with him! – and imagined instead they might have taken him to a demon sanctuary somewhere, if such places existed (he’d never seen adverts for them on TV; no ‘Demons in Need’ appeals either). He wondered if he would ever see the creature again… A question that was answered just before tea-time, December 26th. Jacob heard screams coming from the street outside and rushed to his window to look out. Said street was in turmoil. Bodies littered the road, the fronts of houses were scorched, windows smashed. It looked like a warzone. And there, in Mrs Higgins’ front garden, was Freckles. But he wasn’t the demon he’d been yesterday when he left. Oh, no. Apart from being severely pissed off, Freckles was a good ten-fifteen feet tall, more mature in his appearance, fully scaled, standing almost completely upright, and appeared to be dripping wet. Of Jacob’s parents there was no sign. He’s come home, thought Jacob, but he’s got the wrong house. The boy was just about to rush outside when he realised his mistake. Freckles let loose another one of his laser-vision rays, like Cyclops from The X-Men, blasting away Mrs Higgins’ front door. He disappeared momentarily, and when he came into view again, he had Scrappy in his gigantic paw. He dangled the dog above his mouth, opening the maw to reveal teeth that were more like a sabre-toothed tiger’s now. The dog stopped yapping briefly, obviously aware of what was to - 48 -


PAUL KANE come. Mrs Higgins had rushed out of the house by this time and was attacking Freckles’ legs with an umbrella. The demon took absolutely no notice and, dropping the dog into its hungry jaws, began chewing as it had done with the turkey earlier. “You…You beast,” Jacob heard Mrs Higgins cry, then she hit Freckles with the umbrella again. His response was to crap the remains of the terrier out onto the lawn. Oh no…thought the boy and raced down the stairs of his house, flinging open the front door in time to see Freckles bearing down on the woman. “No! Stop!” he shouted, and the demon paused. Freckles glanced over at Jacob, a sad look in his four eyes. Then came the sound of sirens approaching. The police were out of their cars in no time, armed response units training their weapons on the creature. Jacob had no idea who fired first, probably some nervous cop who didn’t care whether there were civilians in the vicinity or not – just that there was something monstrous in front of them that had to be put down. But the first round hit Freckles squarely in the back. The bullets bounced off, yet quite clearly caused him pain. Snarling, he blasted the police with his heat vision, cooking the man who’d fired at him, exploding the car he’d been using for cover. More shots rang out, sparking off the pavement, off Freckle’s purplegrey scales. Freckles unfurled his wings, which now had a massive span, and – snatching up Mrs Higgins – flew off into the sky. Jacob watched him leave, wishing he hadn’t had to go so soon. The umbrella Mrs Higgins had been holding dropped to the ground near his feet. The remaining policemen took him in for questioning. Jacob told them that Freckles had been his Christmas present; that his parents must have done something really bad to upset Freckles this way. That none of this was his fault. The detective looked at him like he was mad – what a ridiculous story – and informed him his Uncle Tom from down South had been called to come and collect him, seeing as his parents were nowhere to be found. In the car, Uncle Tom confessed that he knew Jacob’s parents were planning something like this. That he’d warned them it would get out of control; that it wasn’t like the movies. “Now Pop’s dead and they’re both probably-” He stopped before he said it out loud, but Jacob knew what must - 49 -


PAUL KANE have happened. He wasn’t stupid. Tears welled in his eyes again as they made the long trek down the motorway. They followed Freckles’ progress that Christmas week on the news. Town after town, city after city he devastated – leaving smouldering ruins in his wake. Jacob gaped with wide eyes at the destruction, the buildings toppled, the dead and injured. Quick glimpses of footage from mobile phones told him that Freckles was growing larger by the hour. A foot here, an arm there. Helicopters fired rockets at the demon; he smashed them into the sides of tower blocks. Tanks and jeeps chased him down the streets; he crushed them underfoot. By the 30th December the army were knocking on Uncle Tom’s door. “Could we have a word with young Jacob?” a General called Carradine, with bushy eyebrows and a gruff voice, asked. Uncle Tom gave the man a cup of tea as he sat on the sofa and outlined his plan to the boy. When he’d finished, Jacob looked at his Uncle who shrugged. “It’s up to you, but this thing-” “Freckles,” corrected Jacob. “Freckles…needs to be contained somehow. They’ll do it with or without your help; maybe this way less people will get hurt?” Jacob reluctantly agreed, and on the last day of December he was flown into the country’s capital where Freckles had last been spotted playing Frisbee with the London Eye; throwing it to himself and then catching it in his mouth – with people still inside it. Now, Jacob saw as he flew in, he was climbing all over the Houses of Parliament, and up the side of Big Ben. He was swatting at more helicopter gunships, and even flew off the side momentarily to claw one to the ground. Their own helicopter landed near Westminster Bridge, an open space where hopefully Freckles would see Jacob…his owner. General Carradine and his troops left Jacob there to call to his ‘pet’, which he dutifully did. “Freckles! Here, boy…” He whistled, calling again to the creature. A shadow fell over Jacob and he was amazed to see the size of Freckles now in real life. The bridge shuddered with his weight as the demon got on all fours - 50 -


PAUL KANE and approached Jacob, sniffing the ground and leaving wide trails of snot behind. “Freckles…Come on, come to me…I’m not going to hurt you.” It wasn’t a lie, he never would. The demon was looking left and right, making its way cautiously along towards Jacob. “C-Come on, t-that’s it.” Jacob could barely keep the quiver from his voice. He held out his hand to Freckles, who now looked directly at him – remembering the boy from a week or so ago; the one who’d freed him from his box and played with him upstairs in his room. A seemingly endless length of tongue stretched out from the demon’s mouth like a fleshy carpet. Jacob stood firm, as much as he wanted to run…This was not the Freckles he’d known, and yet it was. Because as the tongue finally reached him, the forked end of it slavered up Jacob’s cheek, almost lifting him off the ground. At the same time, its tail began to wag. Jacob cried again; even after all that had happened, Freckles was still his pet. Still his Christmas present. He couldn’t do this, couldn’t be a part of his capture. “Freckles. Go…Run, fly…whatever, just GO!” The demon looked confused, perhaps wondering if Jacob was now rejecting him. But it was too late. Helicopters carrying the thrice-blessed nets – on the advice of various occult experts – were already over the bridge. Weighed down with religious statues, the mesh was dropped over Freckles and pinned him down, stopping him from flying. “Now!” screamed a voice from a megaphone somewhere. Suddenly, rockets, shells and mortars slammed into Freckles. “Stop! STOP!” cried Jacob. This wasn’t what they said they’d do, this wasn’t a ‘containment’ at all! Weakened by the bombardment, the demon tried to crawl forwards toward Jacob, but fell heavily, shaking the bridge once more. Freckles let out a whine, helpless and unable to muster even a tiny spark from his eyes. He began to cry and those sparks produced hisses of steam. A final volley of rockets and mortars hit him, penetrating his scales. “NO!” screamed Jacob at the top of his voice, but even he could see it was pretty much over. As Freckles took his last few breaths, Jacob went to him, patting the side of his face, leaning on his spotty cheek. - 51 -


PAUL KANE The demon’s tail wagged once, twice. Then flopped lifelessly to the ground. Army personnel approached, flitting around Jacob, testing the creature to see if it was truly dead. Jacob barely registered them. He was too busy mourning his monster, his very own real-life monster. “Goodbye Freckles,” he whispered to it. “I swear I’ll never forget you. Not as long as I live. Not for my entire life.” Then he felt his Uncle’s strong hand on his shoulder. “Come on, Jay. Time to go.” He led Jacob away through all the confusion, but the boy looked over his shoulder one last time and mouthed two words again. Because he knew this particular Chaos Demon had not meant to be just for Christmas at all. It had always been: “For life…”

Copyright © Paul Kane 2008

www.shadow-writer.co.uk

- 52 -


JOE TUCCIARONE

Ancient Relics & On The Edge : Copyright Š Joe Tucciarone 1997

www.joetucciarone.com - 53 -


IAN HUNTER

T

he first advert appeared on our screens on Christmas day and was estimated to have gathered a viewing figure of over 20 million, which had little to do with the advert itself, but because it appeared during King Charles’ speech. There he was, droning on about global warming and the loss of sites of special scientific interest, when suddenly, we were in an alley following a man with a pit bull terrier. Millions of people must have said, “What is this?” and picked up their remote controls, only to find the same scene on every channel. There was the sound of footsteps running alongside the camera, and a voice. “Hey, didn’t I see you dealing at the primary school last week?” “Fuck off,” the man snarled. “How many kids have you got hooked?” “Satan,” was all the command needed to start the dog growling. “Okay, okay,” muttered the off-screen voice. Dog and owner continued walking and there was little noise until the roar of a vehicle, and the screech of breaks. Then another roar, not of a machine, but a wild beast. The king of the jungle. Two kings – stolen from a Safari park several weeks earlier – loping down the alley. The drug dealer turned and the camera zoomed in, catching a fleeting instant of bewilderment on the man’s face, then sheer terror as the lion’s bounds ate up the distance between them, before eating the owner. The pit bull terrier was made of sterner stuff, but the other lion still triumphed in the end. The camera watched as three men wearing stockings over their heads walked towards the feeding lions, and bent down to touch a bloody severed limb. They raised their hands and smeared blood across the part of the stocking that covered their mouths. “Don’t sell drugs to children,” said one. “Or anyone else,” said another, while the third held a card with four words on it towards the camera. AN ANARCHIC ADVERTS PRESENTATION Static crashed across the screen and the nation was back with the King. The second advert appeared during a late night showing of the film “Mission Impossible 5”, towards the end when Tom Cruise is fighting his clone on the - 54 -


IAN HUNTER roof of a cable-car. The advert opened with a long-shot of a golf club out in the country side, windows blazing with lights and decorations. A man staggered through the front door, down some steps and headed towards his car. He got in, and drove off, without switching on his headlights until he was flashed by several cars going in the opposite direction. The camera followed. “He’s drunk,” said an off-screen voice. “Look at him weave across the road.” The camera and the car moved closer, then were alongside. The drunk driver looked over, clearly worried, perhaps thinking it was the police, not realising it was something far worse. Suddenly the car swerved, forcing the drunk’s car off the road and into a hedge. He climbed out, eventually, huffing and puffing as he grabbed the doorframe and heaved himself out. “What do you think you’re doing?” “Shut up. Drunk.” “You shut up, you’re not the police.” Two figures moved forward, wearing clown masks and pinned the drunk to his car. “Have a drink on us,” said the third clown, stepping forward to pour something from a plastic container over the man’s head. The drunk pulled free, coughing and spluttering. Before he could do anything else a cigarette lighter was held to his clothing. He didn’t even have time to scream. The camera zoomed in on the writhing figure, and it was at this point that many people switched off, although photographs were produced on the front and centre pages of many Boxing Day edition’s of the nation’s tabloids. “Drinking and driving kills,” said a clown. “So don’t do it,” said another. “Thank you for watching,” said the third, holding up a card. AN ANARCHIC ADVERTS PRESENTATION The picture returned to “Mission Impossible 5” in time for the closing credits and Moby’s revamping of the Mission Impossible theme tune. The BBC received over six hundred thousand complaints. - 55 -


IAN HUNTER The third advert interrupted a Boxing Day broadcast of “Robin Hood, King of Thieves”. It began with a man walking along the bank of a river, weaving his way past bushes and trees, while swinging a plastic carrier bag at his side. Something was moving inside the bag. He stopped. Looking furtively, he tied the plastic handles of the bag together then pulled his arm back, ready to lunch the bag into the river. A hand grabbed his shoulder. He turned, looking shocked, surprised. He smiled nervously, shuffled on his feet. “Hey, it’s Halloween, right?” “Wrong,” a voice replied. Two hands wearing gloves reached out for the carrier bag. “I made a mistake,” the man said letting go. “It seemed a good idea. The boy wanted one, but it pisses all over the place, and the wife is going crazy.” The white hands pulled the bag open, revealing a trembling Labrador pup. “The boy won’t miss it,” the man insisted. “He’ll get over it. It’s only been a-“ Suddenly two men emerged from the bushes, white bandages wrapped around their heads, parted in slits to reveal their eyes and nostrils. They grabbed the man by the arms. He looked at the man holding the pup, the noticed the camera. “Oh, no. Oh, shit! You’re them! Help! Help!” He was still shouting as a thick, clear polythene bag was placed over his head. Then he went berserk, struggling to get free as a rope was tied around him, pinning his arms to his body. He kept shouting, breath clouding the polythene. Gently, with an exaggerated swing of their arms, the swathed men pushed him back into the river. The man disappeared under the water, then reappeared, screaming, features contorted by the plastic. A hand held the puppy to the camera, while in the background a sharp corner of polythene slipped beneath the surface for the last time. “Look after your pets,” said a muffled voice. “At Christmas and all through the year.”” The camera moved to a tree with a sign on it. - 56 -


IAN HUNTER AN ANARCHIC ADVERTS PRESENTATION It was rumoured that some people had a heart attack watching this advert. Anarchic Adverts have not broadcasted since. Success is a tough act to follow. Copyright © Ian Hunter 2008

www.ian-hunter.co.uk

The Santa Blasta : Copyright © Les Edwards 1981

www.lesedwards.com - 57 -


LES EDWARDS

Kissing Elf : Copyright Š Les Edwards 2003

www.lesedwards.com - 58 -


STEPHEN BACON

T

homas knew they were not visible from the mainland. As he peered into the mist that enshrouded the rock, he felt a choking sense of claustrophobia. The lighthouse flashed twice, every thirty seconds, but the burst was smothered by the sea-spray and fog. Flannan Isle lay twenty miles offshore, in the western isles of Scotland, deep on the fringes of the Hebrides. From this vantage point, it felt like the edge of the world. It was December 19th, and the weather outside the lighthouse was treacherous. From the lamp-room Thomas peered down onto the rocks, 75 feet below. He watched Donald negotiating the slippery causeway towards the landing. The gales tore at his oilskin, battering him with watery rage. Violent swells erupted onto the rocks. He’d raised the emergency flag, but he realised with despair that the telescopic sight from the mainland was useless in this weather. Thomas stepped outside the blistered door into the roar of the storm. The staircase surrounded the lighthouse like a frail bone, winding downwards to the cabin quarters, and he descended the slippery steps until reached the warped door of the cabin. He hurried within. The body of James Ducat lay beneath a heavy tarpaulin. Something had recently eaten parts of the body. Thomas winced at the coppery smell of blood. The cold air hadn’t yet snatched away the heat that emanated from the wounds. He half peered at the shape beneath the covering, decided to write in the log when he returned, eager to escape the room, forcing horrifying images from his mind. Donald seemed to be taking forever. Afternoon skies darkened outside. He was aware of the sudden absence of ticking, and he peered at the stopped clock, quite unsettled. He felt the hairs rise on his neck. At the door he paused. The gales were relentless. He stepped out onto the wooden landing, descending the slippery stairs, aware of the swirling maelstrom far below. He heard the squeal of the distress beacon above. By the time he reached the rocks he was breathless. The raindrops were thickening into sleet, falling hopelessly into the churning waters of the sea. Through the fog he searched for the glow of Donald’s lantern. He hurried across to the western landing. Coils of ropes lay like rotting serpents. Ahead he could make out Donald’s - 59 -


STEPHEN BACON shape in the mist. He called out, but the sound was snatched away by the roaring wind and sleet. The shape suddenly turned and approached, looming out of the swirling air. Donald’s hooded oilskin looked monstrous and sinister. Thomas cocked to head to listen as Donald began to speak, but it was impossible; the noise was so intense. Thomas indicated towards the door at the base of the lighthouse, sheltered between the overhangs of rock that made up the foot of Flannan Isle. Donald nodded and they hurried over to the door and unlocked it. They stepped into a dark rectangular room, and Thomas felt blindly along a shelf, several feet inside. He picked up a box of matches and lit a wall-mounted lantern that was fixed above. The meagre light was enough to distinguish the generator in the rear of the narrow room. An overpowering smell of oil caused Thomas to wrinkle his nose. “What are we going to do?” He had to speak loudly to compete with the noise of the generator, but it was still better than the howling that battered the outside of the door. “Tom, I made contact with the service vessel. There was a flare.” Donald’s face was flushed by the freezing mist. “They’re navigating the fringe now.” “What about Jim?” “What about him? We’ll have to take him with us.” “No, I mean what did they say about him?” Donald shrugged. “I just said he was dead.” Thomas stared. “Did you tell them what’d happened? That something’s eaten part of his body?” “Calm down, Tom.” Donald paused. “Look, I’ll wait here for the landing craft; you complete the journal and finish the monitoring log. I’ll set off a flare when they’re ready. Then we’ll board the boat and send some of the crew back for Jim.” Thomas gripped Donald’s arm desperately. “Don, I don’t like it. I need to get off the island.” “Listen, we both do. Just see to the job and – “ “It’s Christmas next week. I need to get home to the family.” Thomas felt his teeth chattering, not entirely due to the cold. “I don’t like it. Something’s going on; something not right.” - 60 -


STEPHEN BACON “Get a grip, man.” Donald spoke through a clenched mouth. “Look, you’re the second assistant, pull yourself together.” “For God’s sake, Don, something’s eaten part of his body.” “I know. What the hell do you want me to do? We’ll be leaving in a few minutes.” “There’s a horrible atmosphere, Don.” The hysteria was almost audible. “I keep thinking I’m seeing things. When I get back to Breasclete, I’m done. There’re strange things happening, and I don’t know how to explain – “ “Tom, it’s 1900, man – not the dark ages!” Don thundered, “Get yourself up to the lamp-room and finish the journal. We’ll sort everything else out later.” He gave a firm tug to the sleeve of Thomas’s oilskin. Thomas blinked and opened the door. The wind rushed in, hurling grotesque echoes around the confines of the room. He turned on the threshold, feeling the gale tearing at his flapping coat. Their eyes locked for a moment, before Thomas finally broke contact and plunged into the sleet-filled mist. The stone steps had begun to cover with thickening snow. It lay like fish-scales beneath his strong boots, and he skidded slightly as he began his ascent. The journey felt tortuous and long, but Thomas forced himself to believe that each step would be another one closer towards his escape from this God-forsaken place. As he reached the door of the cabin he paused, thinking of poor James inside. He forced his mind to let go the images that gnawed at him. Risking a lapse of nerves, he threw a glance down to the landing far below. The sleet made dizzying patterns as it fell into the swirling water. Donald stood at the edge of the rocks, staring out to sea, barely in the range of his view from this angle of the lighthouse. Thomas reminded himself that he had a final job to do, so he steadied his frame and continued his ascent towards the lamp-room. As he drew close to the door he sensed the foggy air around him blister with the arc of the beam, reflecting back onto his surroundings. The afternoon light was quickly diminishing. Inside the lamp-room lay a calm sense of sanctuary. The implements of routine and normality were scattered about, grounding his fears to a firmer base. Thomas picked up the brass telescope. The metal was tarnished and cold. He sat at the desk and stared at the open journal, wondering how to begin summing up the events of the past 48 hours. Sleet and snow was attaching itself to the windows of the lamp-room, - 61 -


STEPHEN BACON sliding down the glass, where it gathered in small heaps. Thomas thought about his beloved Agatha at home with the boys, remembered their farewell just a few weeks previously, could almost still feel their kiss on his cheek. The snow was gathering higher on the sills of the glass, and this, together with the darkening skies, created a sense of claustrophobia. Behind him, the oil lamp spluttered and flickered. Thomas stood, suddenly catching sight of his own reflection in the glass. The flickering added a sinister element to the shape. Almost unbearably he felt the need to breathe fresh air, to feel the chill of the afternoon in his lungs. He stood and went to the door. The sea below was a boiling mass of black, with white foam churning around the rocks of the island. Suddenly a bright searing light erupted in the sky above him, followed by a subdued crackle. It was Donald’s flare; the relief boat was here. Quickly he began to make his way down the steps. It was almost dark, and he was struck by the thought of how long he had been in the lamp-room. It had felt like minutes, but there was a suggestion that a great deal of time had elapsed. Eagerness fuelled his inertia, but nevertheless he paused outside the door of the cabin. Through the driving sleet he could make out the hulk of the ship anchored a hundred feet out in the bay. Moored to the lighthouse landing was a rowing boat, the light from a pole mounted lantern cast a faint glow. He opened the door of the cabin and entered, sensing immediately the chill in the room. The tarpaulin looked stiff and heavy, masking the shape below. Thomas gently peeled off the cover, glancing down awkwardly at the face of his dead colleague. Jim was almost unrecognisable. His face was etched with severe anguish, the effect had distorted his features. There was a flap of skin missing from where his chest rose to the throat. The exposed flesh beneath was turning a sickening white as the tissue began to dry. Thomas suddenly noticed a strange red mark on the bare chest. Now the skin was turning pale because of hypostasis, circular red welts were visible on the skin, as if from the suckers of a monstrous tentacle. He peered closely, wrinkling his nose at the stale smell of dried blood. A strange thought suddenly occurred to him; he’d forgotten to write up the final instructions in the journal. It was too late to return to the lamp-room now, but surely he should mention these strange sucker marks? He was just contemplating how long it would take to finish this task, when Jim’s pale hand - 62 -


STEPHEN BACON suddenly grasped his leg. With a jolt of terror Thomas tried to leap away. He stared in horror at the corpse of his colleague, as sluggish spasms began to inject the body with movement. The eyes rolled hideously in their sockets, finally coming to rest on Thomas. The pupils were black. With a hiss the creature began to sit up, teeth bared in horrible grimace. It now resembled nothing of Jim. The tarpaulin fell away and Thomas gaped in horror at the extent of the damage to the body. There was a gaping hole in the lower abdomen, and Thomas could see the coils of yellow intestine pulsing slightly. He was backing away and he felt the door behind him. Throwing it open he rushed out onto the wooden stair, his feet sliding carelessly in the settling snow. Blindly he crashed down the steps, half falling in panic. Half-falling, tumbling down, fear and panic fuelling his gait, he reached the base of the stairs before he realised he was there, skittering across the settling snow in a flurry. He ran across the rocky landing, pausing for a second as he threw a fearful glance backward. The only sense of movement was from the falling snow. The landing vessel was moored to the jetty. A hooded figure in waterproof slicks was adjusting something on the oars. Donald was clambering into the boat, reaching across to unclip the pole-mounted lantern. He looked up as Thomas arrived, breathless. “Thought you’d changed your mind.” Thomas almost leapt into the boat, rocking it violently in his urgency to escape the island. “Steady, Tom.” He motioned toward the oarsman to indicate they were ready, and he unhitched the mooring and began to pull on the oars. Donald slumped back onto the seat, staring resolutely ahead. Thomas peered up to the lighthouse that towered above them, watched it slicing its white beam through the flurries of snow. The boat rocked against the waves that engulfed the rocks. He felt a sense of nausea at the jerky movement, and he searched the base of the lighthouse. Suddenly a shape loomed into view through the raging snow. It approached silently, and at considerable speed. Thomas felt his heart bulging in his chest, fought to control the panic that threatened to overpower him. He - 63 -


STEPHEN BACON scrambled back across the damp wooden bench. The creature that resembled Jim paused at the edge of the rocks, peering with confusion at the departing boat. Its bloated tongue poked through the grimace of a mouth. “Good God, Donald.” Thomas gripped his arm. As the beam coursed around the bay, it illuminated the leprous-looking gore of the creature’s neck, now glistening in the light. Beneath the surface of the water a muscular tentacle flexed, stretching between their boat and the landing rocks. A row of circular suckers was visible along the length, and Thomas watched in horror before it drifted deeper out of sight. “What in the name of –“ A sudden feeling of desolation smothered Thomas. He turned abruptly, the words trapped in his throat. Donald’s oilskin hood had fallen back slightly, gathered around the nape of his neck, revealing the side of his face. There was something inhuman about the way he peered directly ahead. “Don?” Thomas edged backwards. The oarsman continued to pull them through the water as the boat rose and fell on the waves. Ahead, the hulking shape of the relief boat loomed into view, the sails fluttering in the wind. Thomas threw a final glance back to Flannan Isle, shuddering in relief as he realised this would be his final view of the Godforsaken place. He was suddenly aware of countless figures standing on the bows of the ship, watching their approach. As they drew close he could see them clearly. Their skin was bloated and festering from the effects of the sea. A powerful stench of rotting flesh invaded the air. Blood trickled from their noses, rolled down their cheeks like tears. Thomas yanked hold of the oarsman, pulling him off the seat. The grotesque blisters of his face were revealed. One milky eye rolled listlessly in its socket. Maggots wriggled beneath the bloated skin of his forehead. Struggling to breathe, Thomas cast a glance back up to the watching figures on the ship. There were dozens of men, some wearing military uniform, some dressed as fishermen, all of them watching his approach with great interest. They all shared the same hungry stare. Copyright © Stephen Bacon 2008

- 64 -


STEPHEN BACON Author’s note – This story is based on the real life mystery of Flannan Isle, a lighthouse in the Hebrides, where in December 1900 three men vanished in unusual circumstances. Interested readers are recommended to check out the true facts surrounding the case, and to read the wonderful poem, ‘Flannan Isle’ by Wilfred Wilson Gibson, from which this story takes its title. www.stephenbacon.co.uk

Frost Artist : Copyright © Ben Baldwin 2004

www.benbaldwin.co.uk - 65 -


ANNE STOKES

Spirit of Yule : Copyright Š Anne Stokes 2008

www.annestokes.com - 66 -


CHRIS MORRIS

T

his year was going to be extra special, little Timmy just knew it. Christmas for little Timmy was special every year. No matter what he asked for he always got it. It didn’t matter how many news stories there were about queues for the latest toys or toy stores selling out he knew if he asked for that toy his parents would get it for him because… Just because. Well, not just because, because little Timmy was “Mummy’s Little Angel”. He wasn’t Daddies little angel, in fact Daddy had said some nasty things about Timmy but Mummy was boss and if her little darling wanted the latest toy, “He was damn well going to get it!” Timmy still smiled now at the thought of the argument that he had overheard several years ago. Sometimes little Timmy found himself asking for things purely because he knew that his father would have an awful time trying to find it. Timmy had no delusions about Santa Claus, little Timmy was much too clever to believe in him, in fact, at this time of year he found no greater joy than telling the younger children at his school that Santa didn’t exist. The only thing that was as much fun was playing with the animals in the fields behind the school. Despite all this Timmy found that this Christmas Eve felt different. If he had been a little sillier he might have described it as saying that there was magic in the air. But he wasn’t going to say that, he was just going to try to sleep while he thought about all of the hardship his father must have suffered trying to get his impossibly long list of impossibly difficult to find presents that was given to him impossibly late in the festive period. Little Timmy did fall asleep, quite easily as it turned out, but just after midnight he was awoken by a noise that he felt he must have dreamt. It sounded like hooves on the roof of the house! He reached over and turned on his night light. He only kept it in his room to keep his Mummy from worrying about his “night terrors”. Little Timmy fabricated these every so often to ensure that he remained “Mummy’s Little Angel”. Usually he just switched the light off as soon as he heard her retreat downstairs after kissing him goodnight. The night light wasn’t too bright but it did illuminate the room enough for Timmy to see an amazing thing. The wall to his bedroom seemed to shimmer and then a doorway sized hole appeared in it! Then a very familiar shape filled most of the hole. - 67 -


CHRIS MORRIS Timmy couldn’t believe his eyes but stopped himself from screaming. Perhaps this was the magical thing that he had felt in the air. Santa Claus was real and he was here! This made his torture of the younger kids all the more enjoyable. He had dashed their dreams and caused untold misery and the object of their delusion was real after all! “Are… Are you Santa Claus?” Timmy asked shakily. “Why yes I am little boy!” The voice sounded unbelievably jolly. “I didn’t think you existed.” “Not many people do believe in me now. That’s partly my fault. I don’t put in the appearances I used to.” “No? Why not?” “Would you believe that most of the arguments against my existence are true? It truly is impossible for one man to visit every house in the world in one night.” “Doesn’t night last for twenty four hours if you do it in the right way though?” Timmy found it hard to believe that he was arguing for the existence of a mythical figure with that same mythical figure. “That’s true, but even so, it’s just not possible to visit every house, so now I just visit special houses.” “I knew it, I knew I was special!” Little Timmy couldn’t have asked for better vindication. Being “Mummy’s Little Angel” was nice but now Santa was saying that he was special too. “Yes, Timmy. You’re special.” “So the really good kids get a special visit and present from Santa?” Timmy was beaming from ear to ear. “Yep, the really good kids do. They get a visit from me and whatever they want from my sack.” Santa mirrored the boy’s beaming smile. “OK, I’d like…” Timmy was racked by indecision. He had already put everything he wanted in his list for his father to retrieve. What could he ask for now? “Hold on Timmy. Don’t blow a fuse trying to think of your gift.” Santa laughed and Timmy joined him. “Do you think that you’ve been extra special this year?” “Yes I have Santa.” Timmy found himself transported back to his visits to grottos when he had still believed in the white bearded man in front of him. - 68 -


CHRIS MORRIS Back when he knew that Santa would visit and leave presents for him. He couldn’t be happier. “You really think that you’ve been good. I know what you do in the fields behind the school. I know how you like to lure animals over there and I know that you like those fields because they are nice and easy to dig and that makes it easier to get rid of the bodies.” “Santa?” Timmy was feeling a little less happy now. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it but Santa’s vibrant red outfit while remaining red seemed to be becoming darker, more ominous? “You see Timmy, the very good children get visits but there are fewer and fewer of them each year, but even a smart little boy who’s given up believing in me should remember that I don’t just have a nice list.” Santa’s grin still stretched from ear to ear but didn’t seem to convey joviality any more, now it seemed more ominous and terrifying. “I’m on the naughty list?” Timmy ventured quietly. “Yes Timmy you are. You’re on the very naughty list.” Santa’s voice had dropped too but this was not from fear but from some other primal emotion. Timmy watched as his late night caller’s grin remained wide but then began to transform and as Santa’s teeth grew longer and his jaw distended “Mummy’s Little Angel” found he was too scared to scream. Copyright © Chris Morris 2008

- 69 -


ALAN M. CLARK

Dexter’s Freezer : Copyright © Alan M. Clark 1986

www.alanmclark.com - 70 -


A.J.BROWN

K

im sat by the window staring up at the sky as snow drifted, settling on the world outside. Tears filled her blue eyes as she thought of Christmas' past, of the family she once had but was now gone. The images of her baby son, Owen, dead in his car seat, his body strapped in but mangled all the same, danced in her memory, reminding her of the accident that claimed his life. She had been severely hurt in the accident as well. But, the drunk driving the other car walked away with just a few scratches. Her husband left her, blaming her for the accident and being out so late on Christmas Eve, of all nights. As the tears streamed down her face she saw the streak of light crease the cloud filled sky. She wiped her eyes and watched the shooting star. Kim had never seen one pierce through clouds so dense before. Her mind was quick to think. Make a wish. "I wish I had my Owen back," she said aloud and laughed at herself. The thought of holding her son after him being dead for the last couple of years was absurd, but still, it was a mother's wish, her wish. The night wore on and she fell asleep on the couch in the middle of Miracle on 34th Street. The doorbell snapped her awake and she glanced around the room searching for the sound. The toll came again and she stood, straightened her blouse and walked to the door on unsteady legs. She peeked out the window and saw no one in the darkness. For several minutes Kim waited for it to ring again, but when it didn't she opened the door and poked her head outside. "Oh my—" she said. Her skin tingled and her eyes grew wide. An old whicker basket sat on the porch, a green blanket covering what was in it. Attached to it was a note on brown parchment paper. Kim picked the basket up, looked around her yard and up the street and then stepped back inside. She set the basket on the coffee table and opened the letter. I wish I may, I wish I might Have the wish I wish tonight. A mother's joy, a mother's plea To have back her child Is granted to thee.

- 71 -


A.J.BROWN “Owen?” she whispered and reached for the basket. The blanket shifted as something moved beneath it. Then she heard the soft beginnings of a child crying. Kim’s trembling fingers hovered above the blanket for a few seconds as the child beneath it grew restless. Her heart felt like it would explode from her chest, each beat harder than the previous one. The baby’s cries grew louder and Kim started to unfold the blanket from around the baby. Her eyes grew wide and filled with tears as she gazed upon the child before her. A little blue cap sat on its pale head, tiny stiff hairs poking out from it. A perk nose sat above twisted lips and below his two sockets; only one eye, brown and filmed over peered up at her. His gums were black but she could see what looked like the beginnings of teeth trying to poke through them. The small white shirt that swallowed his torso was faded and his small arms poked out of the sleeves as withered branches. His brittle fingers moved and clenched into fists every couple of seconds. Beyond his torso where a tiny diaper should have been and legs should have followed, the body seemed to end abruptly except for his spine. It ran down to its tailbone with tiny pieces of graying flesh dangling from it. Kim put a hand to her mouth and stifled the scream that rose from her throat. “Owen . . .” her voice trailed as she dropped to her knees and put her head in her hands. “No, no, no, no.” Owen’s cries grew louder, his once dead vocal chords sounding like they were straining to regain strength and sound. Several minutes passed with his screams increasing in volume and Kim sitting on the floor, her knees as numb as her mind and heart. Finally, her mother’s instinct spoke to her. Feed your child, woman. She looked up, dazed from what was happening and shook her head. The baby—her baby—screamed, almost as if some unseeing hands were torturing it. Her breasts began to ache like they did when he was born and taking the nipple. She touched her left one and felt the warm milk through her bra. “Owen,” she whispered and stood, the cloud lifting from her head and clarity sinking in. She took the few steps to the whicker basket and looked down at her child. The one eye stared back at her, as if it knew her voice. Kim slipped her shirt over her head and unsnapped the bra, letting it fall to the floor. She bent over, placing her hands beneath Owen's cold body. Gently, - 72 -


A.J.BROWN she lifted him out, pulling the blanket with her. “It’s okay, Owen,” she said as she coaxed his lip to her fully erect nipple. She inhaled sharply as his lips latched on and he began suckling. For an instant she felt light headed and she sat down on the couch. As her heart swelled with joy, blood seeped from Owen’s mouth and down the side of her breast. Copyright © A.J.Brown 2008

Season’s Greetings : Copyright © Vincent Chong 2008

www.vincentchong-art.co.uk - 73 -


ANNE STOKES

Snowflake Fairy : Copyright Š Anne Stokes 2008

www.annestokes.com - 74 -


SEAN WOODWARD

T

he year was 1839. As the oldest of the three sisters looked out the lacefringed window she could see the young boy running his hand along the top of their front wall, collecting the fresh snow into a compact ball as he walked along Brompton Road in the fading light of dusk. Still there was no sign of her young man. Papa might return home any time now and she wished for one moment that the figure of Samuel would come rushing into view. Turning from the window, she opened the drawer of the small table below the window and took out the bundle wrapped in silk cloths. Returning to the middle of the room she carefully placed it on the main table and undid the layers that wrapped it. Slowly she revealed the oval stone box, its top clearly incised with the cross of the Knights Templar. "What is so special this time sister?" ventured the youngest of the three "Grandfather has shown us this reliquary thirty hundred times". "Yes, I know, but he's never shown us this!" She picked up the little casket, carefully not the let the lid come away and placed it on the window ledge. Outside there was a silvery light dancing on the snow now that the moon was full. "Look closely sisters". She lifted the lid to reveal the empty cavity in the lower half. She replaced the lid." Grandfather said he found this at Lalibela in Ethiopia. Look what it does." She lifted the lid once more and to the surprise of the sisters the cavity was now full of clear water. "What trickery is this?" asked the middle sister. The eldest lifted the casket to her lips and drank. She replaced the lid and lifting it once more unveiled a full container of water. "I'm not sure, but it only happens when there's moonlight" The year was 1939. It was the beginning of winter and all was not well. In the far distance he could hear the marching feet of the Everlim. Ice was turned into sheets of steel, fields cracked open as the army marched without hesitation. Fumes added to the thick fog that smothered the hedgerows. He paused and tried to gather his strategies afresh. He knew that the sound he heard wasn't their boot falls, as their feet never touched the ground. Instead it was their Blitzmare war machines that mimicked the noise as they rolled closer to the gates of Danzig city. Henri Muller ran to the bookshelves which lined the north wall of the stone chamber. Running a finger across the tops of the spines he waited for the rough - 75 -


SEAN WOODWARD touch of the vellum which formed the Letztesbuch. Without a moment's hesitation he found the pages he had studied for so many years and ripped them from within its spine. Grabbing his overcoat from the chair in the middle of the room he stuffed the pages into an inner pocket and ran out, down the torch-lit corridor and out in the snow-covered courtyard. Outside the sound of the coming army seemed even louder and closer. As he ran toward the gatehouse he clearly hear the sound of the infernal machines, their heavy caterpillar tracks ripping up the countryside below them as the monsters that were the Everlim hovered in the air behind them. He didn't want to wait and see how many of those creatures were advancing on the city; a handful of them could devour the city walls. Already they would have outstretched arms as they hung in the air, blazing eyes fixed on the battlements, hungry for the stone. He raced down the cobbled hill towards the port and the ship that was waiting to carry him across the Baltic and eventually to America. His intelligence suggested the U-Boats would also soon be approaching the city. He had only a few hours to make his escape. The flurries of snow were already blowing hard down 6th Avenue as Henri's steamer docked. Like a large proportion of the other travelers he had wrapped up and faced the chill of the upper decks to get a good view of Liberty. As birds followed the huge ship into port he found himself thinking of all those who had come as immigrants. He wondered how long this brave new nation could keep itself separate from the terrors that were wrapping Europe in the Third Reich's barbs of war. Now, as he passed the ornate clock in the main lobby with its own miniature statue of liberty at its crown he was happy to be once more in the ornate confines of the Waldorf. The entrance lobby was dominated by the red and gold Christmas tree and the avenues of decorations which hung around the building. Businessmen and newly-weds danced around each other in the flurry of people coming through its golden entrance. The manager walked with him to the set of lifts, their doors silvered with art deco beauties and inserted the special card into the slot. He nodded a silent farewell as the doors closed and Henri travelled upwards towards the sky alone. The suite was only accessible via this lift. As Henri flung open the high doors and walked into the conference room he was reminded of all the powerful men who had sat in here with him before. Rockefeller and Hoover - 76 -


SEAN WOODWARD and all the others remained in his mind's vision. He wondered how they would be remembered in the times to come. Would they just be architectural highlights of the city or would their true sacrifices ever be recounted. He doubted it. Not as long as the government maintained its records office in the bowels of Grand Central Station. He continued through to the drawing room with its high windows and acres of billowing curtain. Throwing them back he stared out across the rooftops of Manhattan. The snow was heavier now, adding extra finials to all the hidden ornate tracery. One day they would make another city, even higher amongst the clouds, a secret world from which to govern this. That would be a long time from now. It required that the current enemies of the Cabal be nullified first and that would require the transformation of nations. Henri thought about the people that were coming tonight. No doubt they were more concerned with the effects of the actions in Europe on Wall Street, on their returns on their already stretched reserves. Henri had other concerns. The sounds of the projector's transports filled the conference room as the reels of tape played out before the gathered dignitaries. "What the hell is this?" remarked Matterton, sucking deep again on his cigar. "These are the Everlim. I believe Himmler's people discovered them in the ruins at Sumeria. "But where in God's name are their vehicles?" asked another of the pinstriped men. "They have no need of such human conceits" remarked Henri Matterton moved closer to the screen, examining the footage intently. "Everlim you say! Are they some kind of kite? Army standard?" Henri was growing frustrated. He straightened the cuffs of his shirt. "No these are not banners or war scarecrows. They are creatures raised from those ruins." "So what does this have to do with the Fed?" asked another of the copy-cat, well-built corporate men. Henri walked across to where he stood. "I need twenty million dollars and I need it tonight" he stated calmly. The room fell silent, light bouncing off the cigar-thick smoke, scattering images on the fine wallpaper. "Let me explain," ventured Henri. "Danzig is lost and with it the second volume of the Letztesbuch. They used the first to raise those infernal creatures. - 77 -


SEAN WOODWARD Himmler will continue until he has all eleven volumes in his possession. When that happens, even this mighty metropolis will fall." "You can't be serious!" exclaimed Matterton, holding Henri's gaze. "I'm deadly serious; if you can't raise the bonds then you'd better start learning German now!" As the last of the bankers left the suite the door to the study opened slowly. Nathaniel N'Tarran walked slowly in. His suit seemed immediately older than that of any of the bankers and yet strangely contemporary. "I trust you have the bonds Henri?" "They'll be here in the morning" "Good. I hope you won't feel unduly slighted by these affairs". "Just remember to keep your part of the bargain." "It would serve you well to remember to whom you speak" said the tall man menacingly. Henri was about to speak but thought better of it. N'Tarran walked towards the high windows. Slowly opening the lock he threw them open and stepped up onto the ornate balcony. In an instant he had thrown himself over its edge, plummeting through the snow towards Fifth Avenue many, many stories below. Henri walked casually to the window. He was not too slow to see the shape of N'Tarran's body recover itself in free-fall and rise slowly into the sky before streaking alighting on a distant flagpole. Henri closed the windows and secured the latch. Then he took the small piece of iron and origami from its locked drawer and placed it on the floor before the windows. It would prevent any of his kind ever entering that way, but he feared they would have other methods should they be necessary. He detested this alliance, but it was essential. The other members of The Cabal had not agreed entirely with him, but each had offered him a different talisman. Some were of wood, some of crystal, some of paper, but they all contained the sacred seal of The Cabal and slivers of moonlight-forged iron in their design. For only iron would prevent N'Tarran's kind from wrecking havoc on humans, this they well knew from experience. Henri returned to the middle of the conference room. He found the recessed switches and stood back as the table reconfigured itself. The sound of the hydraulic motors was hardly discernable as surfaces folded and the projector returned to its hidden housing. He found the second button and gently pressed it. Once again the table began a new metamorphosis. This time - 78 -


SEAN WOODWARD there was no sound at all and during the machinations the pieces were a mere blur. In a few moments it had opened out to reveal a leather seat surrounded by an intricate array of black mahogany cubes. Henri carefully sat down in the chair. As he rested his hands on the nest of cubes they smoothed out into a comfortable surface and hieroglyphics glowed in the surface where his fingers met it. As he put his other hand down a slab of the dark wood rose before him, like a small wall. Its surface flickered and a moving image became visible. He looked for the projector, but it was gone. Somehow the wood was a liquid window through which a bearded face was just becoming visible. "Congratulations Henri, you followed my instructions then?" "Yes Sam. This is incredible, where are you?" "I'm in Brompton Alpha, in the cemetery." "In the cemetery! N'Tarran would love that!" "That might well as be Henri, but even he won't be able to breach this machine" "How can you be so sure Sam?" "Well time is a great healer Henri, even for his kind" Henri was a little bewildered. Sam Warner had built some strange machinery in his years, but to communicate with him though this piece of rippling wood was bizarre. "What is this Sam?" "It's the Qube from Broadway Alpha. It's a kind of control desk. I had it removed from the machine when people started to get a little too curious in the cemetery. There's an intact one in Havana and Lima and several others I haven't managed to recover yet." "But what is its purpose?" "Its purpose, my old friend is to help us outwit our enemies. In whatever place or time we find them." You mentioned time again Sam. Are you suggesting ..?" "Yes Henri, they are time-machines. Do you have the money for the sisters yet?" They had spoken long into the night. Sam had wanted to convene the full Cabal and show them the wonders of his discoveries at Brampton but Henri cautioned against it. Samuel had been one of the few to agree to the alliance with N'Tarran, even though he was well-aware of his abilities, having seen his atrocities at close quarters "Why so much money Samuel?" - 79 -


SEAN WOODWARD "I have to build a church for their father and the mausoleum". He sounded desperate. Henri was puzzled. He tried to gauge Samuel's disposition through the flickering wood. Samuel too must have been watching Henri closely. "Yes I know I'm in it now, but events are fluid. It's spoken to me Henri, this machine. It showed me the blueprints of its creation, allowed me to build it from this very key." Samuel thrust the key from the chain around his neck into view. "I need Hannah to give me the Templargram in her own time. That will thwart N'Tarran's plans for it, for I've seen them Henri! He would tear the moon from the skies; rip the earth apart in his desire for freedom. Together with the Versteckt Reich he'll have access to every volume of the Letztesbuch! You know what terrors that will bring. I've seen generations of monsters walking the earth, all of them swearing allegiance to Himmler and his master. There will be nothing of beauty left in this world! Do you see now why I need to keep the machine working? Its reserves of earth-energy dwindle by the hour. It's like a child crying Henri; I have to keep it alive". As he sat in the leather chair of the Qube desk, Henri thought he already understood a little of what Samuel meant. There was something insidious about these contraptions, as if the wood and strange surfaces were alive. They both had encountered many strange phenomena in the decades that they had been members of the Cabal. The days when they would question the stories of the elders were long overtaken by their own experiences. And yet Henri found these latest discoveries to be both amazing and terrifying. That the world possessed such wondrous machines was truly a curse. Should they fall into the hands of Himmler or his kind then there was no end to the horrors that they could unleash. To see the Everlim once more upon the earth's battlefields was terrible. That would be dwarfed by the monstrosities these machines could unleash. The longer Henri sat within the Giant's Causeway of cubes the more he had witnessed in his mind's eye the perversions which they could unleash. It was almost like a siren's voice urging him to touch his fingers upon other, oblique angles and witness the joys of the torment they would unleash. "I'll get the bonds tomorrow Sam. One million for you, one million for N'Tarran. I hope you know what you're doing." He had stood in the shower long before retiring that night, trying to rub - 80 -


SEAN WOODWARD himself clean of the contamination his body and spirit had felt. He prayed Samuel Warner was not diminished by his exposure to such corruption. The following day the men from the Bureau had agreed to meet with Henri to deliver the bonds. More snow was still falling as the three of them stood by the side of the Rockefeller ice rink. Henri loved what had been accomplished here. Away from the dark subterranean offices of the building the golden sheen of art works on its facade managed to introduce a spirit of otherworldness to this edifice to finance. When its creator was long gone people would continue to benefit just by gazing at those works of art and finding their spirits filling with new opportunity. "We'll need to accompany you with these bonds Dr Muller". "That wasn't the agreement, let me speak with Matterton." "There's been a change of plan, please come with us." Henri followed the two agents. He didn't know what Matterton was doing but he had to get the bonds to N'Tarran and eventually to the sisters in Brompton. Sam had been adamant about that. It was essential that N'Tarran be allowed to handle the bonds. Sam had explained how his blood would transform the alloys that made the eagle-mark on the million-dollar bonds. The Templargram had been in the family of the sisters for centuries. Together with the eagle-mark it would become re-ignited, a source of unimaginable power. Perhaps even a weapon that could totally destroy the work of Himmler both in the coming war and on the inner planes. Sam had convinced him there and then when he replayed the atrocities that were to come. He had shown him the ruins of St Paul's as the German army marched through the city and began dividing it into enclaves. He saw Big Ben's clock face replaced with a huge swastika insignia and troops parading before an occupied Buckingham Palace. He wanted to believe it was just fantasy, like something the seer would show him in her pool and say may come to pass. What Sam had shown him had already happened, so complete was its devastation. He was shaken from his recollection by the voice of one of the agents. "Come this way please Dr Muller." He motioned to the already open door of the vehicle. Henri got in the passenger seat and it slowly drew off, flicking snow onto the sidewalk. N'Tarran could feel the soft dust rising to touch his face as he lay perfectly still. Generally he preferred to hang upside-down in the darkest recesses of his - 81 -


SEAN WOODWARD lair, but tonight was different. He needed the reminders of home. The box appeared to be made of the strange wood that Henri had recently become acquainted with. Its bottom was hidden beneath N'Tarran by the layer of glowing dust that he lay in. It had come from his estate on his home-world, travelled the vast distances of space in the huge ships of his people until finally he had been imprisoned here, on this backwards planet. Earlier in the evening he had walked past the Byzantine splendor of St. Bartholomew's Church, unable to touch its steps or cross the acres of air above it. A man had lain dying in the alley that ran at the back of 51st Street. N'Tarran had not touched the ground until he was sure he was dead before feasting upon him. He had ripped the golden crucifix from his neck first. It still awed him how these people could find solace in a myth of regeneration that was millennia old even before the fairy tale of the Nazarene. All around him they were celebrating his supposed birth, with their trees and lights and gifts and attempts at niceness to the people they detested for the other eleven months of the year. It had somewhat tainted the flavor of this man. N'Tarran liked best the blood of the care-free dilettantes, of handsome young poets and those hungry for power. Their energies would not be wasted. But this would have to do and then he could sleep. His daylight hours were filled with the dreams of his home-world, of the wars of conquest eternally sating his people. They had spread across a whole quarter of the Rim in the ancient times, walked as gods and goddesses on worlds so alien from their own. Now he was confined to this earth with its light and its superstitious people. He detested it. He wondered how far out in the solar system his ship would now be, if its navigation systems would still be functioning after all these millennia, its Qube drawing sustenance from the very suns he despised. The dark matter drives would continue to propel it through the correct trajectories, coming to a halt at every solar eclipse so as to absorb more of the dark light. Every night he looked at the moon whose orbit held him prisoner here, every night he dreamed of new ways to disrupt her path and free him from this prison. Perhaps at last, after centuries of plotting he would have in his hands a power that would rip apart the very dust of the moon, so he could soar high and free from this world. Then he would gather his followers and bring vengeance to those who had betrayed him. "So Dr Muller, you thought you could just walk away with two million dollars?" The way Matterton phrased the words seemed casual, almost - 82 -


SEAN WOODWARD harmless but it was obvious from the way he stood in his office that it was a half-rhetorical question. "I thought we had an agreement Joseph?" Matterton motioned the agents to leave and they did so, closing the door and its one pane of glass and banging blinds behind them. He stood up, walked to the side of his desk and stood before the bookcase. "Do you know what these are? Well I'll tell you. These are the files the Bureau keeps on you Dr Muller. And I have to say you keep some very strange company." "Is that what this is all about? Who my associates are?" "Well, we have to be careful in these times. After all, are you not of German parentage yourself?" "Only on my father's side, as I'm sure you already know." "Yes we do. But some of these people. Samuel Warner for example." "What about him?" "We've been watching him for some time. He has made some rather extravagant claims to our munitions people. Are you aware that he proposed a missile that could fly down streets?" "Well, he's an inventor; surely he is no risk to the bonds?" "It's a worrying indicator you see Dr Muller. I have to question the mind and motivation of someone who numbers such people as friends." "I don't need to convince you of my credentials, surely." "You need to convince me that this country can trust you. I want to know where this money is going." "You know I can't tell you that." "Damnit Henri. This county is suffering one of the worst financial depressions in our history and you want to just walk off with two million from the Reserve?" "Yes. You've seen the Presidential decree." "I want to know, Henri. Or God help-me I'll put a stop to this right now." Henri looked around the cramped office of Agent Joseph Matterton. It looked like the kind of place that would provide a slow decline for Matterton's mental health and sap his marriage of time and affection. He sat down in the chair opposite where Matterton had returned to. He wiped his eyes. "It's for a weapon Joseph. I was with Robert in Los Alamos. He's read the - 83 -


SEAN WOODWARD whole of the Letztesbuch. He said this thing was a million times more powerful than what they're working on with the Manhattan Project. Can you believe that? If we finish this now, we finish Germany's attempts to complete the Versteckt Reich. We finish the decay that is eating the world." Illyia looked around the room at the concrete walls and the bare bulb that hung from the middle of the ceiling, once more sparking its strange flylanguage electric buzz. It reminded him of an ancient language.He couldn't quite remember where the language was from, nor if it was still 1939.It seemed like he'd been in this bunker many lifetimes already. The officer was still standing facing him, arms crossed, jacket perfectly creased, the ioron cross shining proudly on his chest. "Tell me again little man, what do you see in the next room?". Illyia closed his eyes. His head hurt when he did this but he had no choice. He saw the same concrete walls of the bunker complex, the same twitching light. Only this room had a table on which lay three photographs. "There are three photographs mein Oberf端hrer". The tall German paced around Illyia, a riding crop held loosely in one hand. "Good. Very good, little man. Now tell me what they are photographs of." Illyia hesitated, they looked out-of-focus, blurred. Suddenly he screamed out in pain, the man had hit him hard across the neck with the iron-tipped riding crop. "This will not do. When I ask a question you will provide the answer. Immediately." Illyia flinched. He had thought this semi-imprisonment was better than the fate many of his closest friends were suffering. He had seen into their cells but suffered the pain of being able to only observe. "I can't see anything, they're blurred". The tall man smiled. "Excellent. We may be able to make something of you yet little man. Now I want you to visit this place." He handed Illyia a string of numbers. Lattitude and Longitude. This way he could have no idea where the target site was. He closed his eyes tightly once again, He saw a heavily draped window but his vision was flooded with pulsating bronze light, as if a thousand sunflowers had suddenly been reflected in his eyes. He felt the crop hit his neck again. "Tell me now before I lose my patience" the officer commanded. Illyia was scared now. He couldn't see beyond the window, just the rows of other ones reaching deep to the city street below. - 84 -


SEAN WOODWARD "I think it's a city. A fantastic city. I see towering buildings that touch the sky." "And a man. Do you see a man?" Now Illyia was terrified. He couldn't see anything for the blinding light. Did he tell the German the truth, or guess at what he wanted to hear? Then all of a sudden he saw a figure on the building opposite, crouched where a flag pole jutted out. It was an American flag, a stars and stripes. "I." He hesitated "I see an American flag and. This is strange. There is a man crouching on the side of the building. But this is impossible!" "Nothing is impossible for N'Tarran" said the officer. He smiled and relaxed his grip on the riding crop. "Now go to him, tell me what he says". N'Tarran! That name had been whispered in fear the ghetto. Some said he was the son of a Rabbi, others not a man but a golem. Over the years Illyia had come to realize that he was not so different himself. He allowed his vision to move closer to the tall buildings across from the blinding window. He thought it strange how the slabs of stone cladding were all so ornately carved high up here, way beyond the sight of anyone below. The figure was dressed in a dark suite. He seemed to be waiting for something. As he grew larger in Illyia's vision his mouth began to move slowly and he heard him forming words amidst the cold howling of the snow falling amongst them. "I know you can hear me now Oberf端hrer. Soon the glorious dawn of the Versteckt Reich will be upon us. Tomorrow I will have the means to build our weapon. Tomorrow I will visit the descendants of the sisters. The fool Muller suspects nothing and the Americans are like stupid children. Everything is going to plan. I will speak again when I have the device." As Illyia repeated the words to the Oberf端hrer he seemed to change his mood completely. "Come," he said, placing a caring arm around Illyia's shoulder. "There is no need for concern little man, come we have a large feast waiting for us upstairs." As Illyia walked cautiously out of the concrete room with the Oberf端hrer he heard the electric bulb continue its morse-code stutter, trying to explain the language of the flies in another way. Illyia tried to put it from his mind, to not let his thoughts become entwined in the nuances of the sounds. He wondered if he would get a fresh change of clothes and a shower at last now, for it seemed that for now the Oberf端hrer appeared to be happy. He would eat well in the upper chambers of the bunker that looked out over the snow clad mountains. - 85 -


SEAN WOODWARD "We should show this to Papa" said the youngest sister. The eldest walked up to her and taking her hand spoke slowly. "Papa will not return from evening mass for a while yet little sister. I will speak with him then." The other sister looked on with incredulous eyes but said nothing. She was afraid that this was some kind of witchcraft that their father was always warning them against. She had wanted to go outside at the first sign of snow, to play in the transformed brilliant wilderness. Papa would not approve of such frivolity. Sometimes they thought it a curse to be the daughters of a clergyman. With their mother dead it seemed that no-one really understood their world at all. They dreamed of balls and royalty whilst Papa was forever telling them to cherish the simple things in life, to get by with few means. Grandpapa had always seemed an antidote to his son, with his exciting tales of travels in Africa and the Middle East. He inhabited a bright world which they could understand. Papa did not. More children had scooped snow from the garden wall as the night drew out. As quickly as they did this the fresh falls of snow wiped out all traces of them. Slowly but surely the winter weather was covering Brampton is thicker layers of white, erasing all the dullness of the old world with the promise of a winter wonderland. "Come, let us finish decorating the tree" said the eldest sister, wrapping the object and putting it back once more in its drawer. She pulled the heavy drapes shut and lit the candles positioned safely away from the material. As they started to hang small trinkets upon the tree the drawing room burst open and Grandpa strode in. Immediately the three sisters ran into his arms for one huge hug, oblivious to the dusting of snow they received from his still wet clothes. He feigned a kind of surprise. "Well, well, this is unexpected my dears" he said after stepping back and passing his overcoat to Sarah, the Nanny. "Sarah please brings my bags in." The sisters looked at one another with elation. That could only mean he had brought their Christmas presents and they'd be able to arrange them around the tree tonight. Presently the bags were brought in and the sisters' wishes came true. Once all the brightly wrapped parcels had been placed around the base of the tree, the youngest of the sisters walked up to Grandpa at the huge drawing room table. "Tell us about the Christbox again Grandpapa" she pleaded. The eldest was - 86 -


SEAN WOODWARD well aware their father would not have let them keep it in the house had it been given any other name. Their grandfather pulled his chair close to the large open hearth as the sisters gathered themselves around his feet. Outside the drifts of snow along Brompton Road were getting thicker as the night progressed. N'Tarran lay restless in his casket. He longed to walk in daylight, longed to be free of the moon and this world. He remembered a time when he had some small degree of freedom, when he was able to move across the face of this planet in sunlight. It was the town in Ethiopia where everything changed in the year 1239. He had been a knight then. There was only one order he would contemplate joining. The Pauperes Commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici with their brotherhood and vast reserves of wealth offered the perfect place for him to hide. The Arab Zen'Diq had travelled with them from the Holy Land, shown them the route Solomon was supposed to have taken. When they came to Lalibela, leaving their horses tied to the spare trees, he knew immediately that he was not alone on this dreary planet. The huge stone buildings – crosses and cubes cut out of the rock, fashioned lately as churches, had all the markings of Qube Kinetiks. Their edges held grooves containing the dark wooden control surfaces camouflaged as door and window frames. Even now he could see the slight changes in alignment that would cause the Qube to begin its transformation. He took the small oval stone box from within his chain mail and drank of the warm blood. He had carved their accursed cross onto its top so as to remove suspicion. He wanted to drink again, knowing it would be full already but dare not beside his companions. "Master Natarran, should we stay here tonight?" asked one of the sergeants. "Yes, we need to rest the horses. Tomorrow we'll continue to Lake Tana." The party of knights gathered around the trees where their horses were tethered and unpacked their provisions. N'Tarran pulled blankets from one of the pack horses and descended the stone staircase into one of the cross-shaped buildings hewn from the rock. It would certainly be much warmer when the cold night came. In the casket in New York his body convulsed at the approaching memories, as if it contained its own fragment of the experience still, after all these centuries. He closed his eyes once more and tried to think of his home-world, but the memories of Lalibela remained. That night had been ferociously cold and the rough stone building offered good shelter. After a few hours he heard - 87 -


SEAN WOODWARD the sounds of the other knight moving their bedding into the adjacent buildings. "I know what you are Master Natarran" were the words that awoke him. The Arab stood over him brandishing a dagger that he had not seen in all their years of fighting at Acre. Its blade was rough and covered in symbols. He recognized the metal instantly. "Yes, this is iron forged in moonlight and blessed by the Djinn. I could thrust it into your heart now demon, if you had one, and you would die just like us." N'Tarran marveled at the bravery of the Arab. They had fought so many campaigns together that he never once suspected his loyalty. He looked him up and down, ready to leap and break his neck. He would be drinking fresh blood this night. Zen'diq saw the intent in N'Tarran's cold eyes and stepped back. "Give me the box demon" he demanded. N'Tarran sat up and as he did so hovered, cross legged above the blankets, rising until his now scarlet eyes were level with those of the Arab. "Run while you can fool" he hissed. N'Tarran stood his ground. Holding the dagger forward he muttered words from the Babbaku language of his forefathers. Instantly the room began to fill with falling, heavy snow. The shock jolted N'Tarran to the ground and the Arab seized the opportunity. He thrust the dagger into N'Tarran. The effect was instant. The falling snow gathered in a sphere around the fallen body and seemed to paralyze him. Zen'diq moved closer and rummaging through his clothes found the oval box marked with the Templar cross. He pulled the dagger from the body and ran towards them door, the sphere of snow vanishing as quickly. In the casket N'Tarran's body writhed in fierce contractions. That dagger had not killed him as the fool had thought but its powerful Djinn magick had changed him forever. Now he could not face this world's sunlight without immense pain. Now he could no longer enter or cross blessed land. The very order that had sheltered him became anathema to him. He was exiled from the fortunes he had accumulated, forced to use others to retrieve his belongings from the preceptories and priories scattered across old Europe. In time he would learn of the mysterious order to which the arab had belonged. He would seek out and kill members of the Cabal, but always they seemed to possess some ancient magicks of this world with which to thwart him. At last, in this age, the men of the Versteckt Reich were more like his own people. Soon he - 88 -


SEAN WOODWARD would hold the Templagram in his hands once more, drink of its pure blood and begin the destruction of the world. With those thoughts he was at last able to sleep, just before the dawn light struck the barricaded shutters on the windows of the mansion high above. Samuel Warner adjusted the upright collar of his shirt. The long tail coatedjacket didn't quite fasten over the bulk of his expanding belly but he still cut a fine figure of an eccentric Englishman. He looked through the stone and wood portal of the Lalibela Gamma time-machine, out into the hot Ethiopian landscape. The machine looked just like one of the other rock hewn buildings. The image of the outside world was cloaked in a web of lines and pulsating points. It had taken him several weeks to unravel their meaning initially. At Brompton they seemed to almost obscure his view, so many were their lines. Major conduits stretched out east across the Thames towards the Tower. Other lines went north towards the old burial mound of Boadicea. Many passed through ancient churches or pagan sites. Slowly he came to realize that they were the patterns of some kind of unseen grid which powered the machine. Here in Ethiopia were the least-dense concentration he had seen, but they burned with a broad intensity unlike any save the vortexes at Giza. He waited until the scene with the Arab and N'Tarran had completed and then cautiously touched the wooden control surfaces to make the journey back to Brompton and Hannah. Sometimes it was as if the machine spoke to him in his mind. In his dreams he would travel he know not where and time would pass in a strange, dazed fashion. Day by day he heard the guttural, reverberating voice teach him the meanings of wood and crystal. It was getting harder to remember to which time and places he belonged, what he had said to whom and when. Only thoughts of Hannah kept him from slipping totally into the slavery of the machine. She was the oldest of the three sisters and the one who had given him the key to their mausoleum in the cemetery. It hung now around his neck still. It was a strange object, with a spiral of cubes about its core. He wondered at the type of lock and the very mausoleum that had unfolded from it. Eventually his curiosity could not be contained and one Lammas night he had ventured alone to the cemetery, seeking out the mausoleum. It was hidden amongst trees on the eastern edge, not off any of the main thoroughfares as he had thought and once upon it he was struck by the strange hieroglyphic markings, the circular recesses near its roof and the aura of - 89 -


SEAN WOODWARD remembrance which embraced him that first night of their meeting. It was the sense of dĂŠjĂ -vu that Samuel found so strange. The tomb was like something that had inhabited his dreams. So sure was he that he had seen its Egyptian form before. He held the strange key in his hand and wondered at its design, though in hindsight, given the other wonders of the Bromptom mausoleum the mysteries of its key were paltry. He looked now around the shelves for the Christmas present he had brought for Hannah and, ensuring no one was looking, exited the mausoleum, trudging through the low, snow-covered avenues of the cemetery towards the big house on Brompton Road. In New York, Dr Muller pulled the jacket of his overcoat higher. It was cold here on the roof of the Rockefeller centre, but it was worth it for the view alone. Manhattan spread out before him, its high cathedrals to commerce rising seamlessly from the ocean. There was something so different about this land, that he felt reborn every time he left Europe. He wondered when this great conglomeration of mankind would turn away from the sea towards the inner lands of America, wondered when people would tire of living in this metropolis. As the sun began to set and flickered crimson on a multitude of windows below him he was reminded how easily the walled city of Danzig had already fallen, devoured as sustenance to the creatures that marched before the Versteckt Reich's army. Here the Everlim could float amongst the buildings, destroying them utterly at every level, killing people on every floor. He had to put a stop to that, no matter the hand he had had in its birth. He took the torn pages of the Letztesbuch from his pocket. It was his own translations of the first chapters which had allowed OberfĂźhrer Farbenz to find the path to the Everlim in the first days of the war. "Herr Farbenz at least is true to his ideals good doctor." Henri turned startled. N'Tarran stood behind him smiling. "What are these ideals of which you speak? Mass murder and the destruction of civilization?. You think I am not equally committed to preventing this?" "There is little to think when I can hear your thoughts Dr Muller. You need waste no time with thoughts of rebellion. When the Versteckt Reich comes to this land you will be glad you helped in the old days." Henri looked hard into N'Tarran's scarlet eyes. He knew he was capable of - 90 -


SEAN WOODWARD every deceit there was. "It is the Versteckt Reich which must be destroyed N'Tarran. You of all people must release that." "It is true that they commit many acts against my people which I do not approve of doctor." N'Tarran's gaze fell to the floor. "Even now one of my kind is kept prisoner by Herr Farbenz. This is another reason why I need the bonds. Do you have them or should I rip them from the hand of that idiot Matterton myself?" Henri put the briefcase on the ground, looking out towards the stars starting to twinkle on the horizon. The snow would be freezing tonight. "No Nathaniel there is no need of further bloodshed." N'Tarran smiled again. "Blood is something I am somewhat fond of" "Yes, much the pity. What happened to your knightly chivalry?" N'Tarrnan picked up the case, gauged its weight momentarily and then spoke. "You speak of long ago doctor, before The Cabal declared war on me, before I removed my machines from your reach." "Would you not think of our alliance again?" Before the sentence was completed Henri felt a rush of air and N'Tarran and two million dollars of US bonds had vanished. His other hand still held the pages he had ripped from that accursed book in Danzig. As he gazed upon the tops of the skyscrapers he was suddenly reminded of the strange cubical machinations of the desk Samuel had installed in the hotel suite. He looked at the pages, covered in scribbled cubes and notations in Samuel's own hand and wondered, not for the first time today, if his alliance with N'Tarran would only end in ruin. Looking up, the night sky above Manhattan was now blanketed in two million stars of its own. He prayed it would stay this way as he walked down the roof steps and took the elevators down to the street below. Their grandfather had finished his tale of the Christbox and the younger sisters were upstairs preparing for bed when Hannah heard the knock at the door. Sarah showed the young man into the parlor and opening the drawing room door announced him to all. Hannah's heart leapt. Samuel had come at last. In his fine clothes and combed hair he looked as if he'd just stepped from a hansom cab rather than run the length of Brampton Road. He felt much - 91 -


SEAN WOODWARD younger and indeed later he would realize that his age would change with the time that the machine brought him to. "These are for your sisters Hannah," he said taking the finely wrapped jeweler's boxes from his pocket and placing them on the table. "And this is for you, my love". He held out the large box, wrapped in gold and silver ribbons. "Come Mr Warner" said the grandfather "will you sit and drink awhile with us?" "Gladly" replied Samuel and drew up a chair as Hannah's grandfather poured him a glass of sherry. "Is not this season delightful?" ventured Hannah's grandfather. "Indeed it is sir, but your grand-daughter yet more delightful still" She blushed. She was unaccustomed to his charms in public. "Please sir, you should save such talk for Hannah herself." He stood up, Samuel wondering for a moment if he had caused offence and walked towards the window and the small table beneath it with its drawer. "Let us speak of other matters first though. The provision you have left for the Institute is, let me say, most generous." "I have lately come into some inheritance sir." "That is clear for all to see Mr. Warner. I'm told you are something of an explorer yourself." "In realms scientific yes, I suppose you could call me that". "Well" and the old man took the box from its drawer once more, passing it to Hannah. "Perhaps this is best suited to your safe-keeping then." Hannah passed the wrapped box to Samuel. She wondered why Grandpapa would give the Christbox away like this, but as it was to Samuel she hoped it meant the family approved of their recent engagement. Samuel opened the layers of material carefully and saw first the cross etched onto the lid of the small oval box. It was the same one he had seen all those centuries before in Ethiopia, through the strange window of the timemachine, the same one he had seen the Arab take from N'Tarran at knifepoint. As he held it he felt a chill in the air and then they all looked on in wonder as a cube of falling snow grew around the box and Samuel's hand. Outside all was calm as the snow had finally stopped, inside the cube of white a storm blew ferociously. Jeremiah Courthauld smiled. "I knew this was for you Samuel, I'd just been - 92 -


SEAN WOODWARD keeping it safe all these years." Illyia screamed as the cubes of snow started to appear on the cell floor. "What is this?" asked Herr Farbenz as he stepped over the white cubes which were blinking into existence, in varying sizes and locations. "Return to New York now, tell me what is happening!" "It's too late" said Illyia. He leapt at Farbenz, sinking razor-sharp teeth into his neck and draining the life from him in a single bite. As he did so his stature and features started to transform into those of Farbenz and his form, now limp upon the floor took on the features of Illyia's old body. Henri returned to the suite in the Waldorf, only to find it decorated with Christmas garlands and hundreds of small white origami cubes. They bestowed a strange kind of peace upon him. He did not know what would become of N'Tarran and the bonds but for the first time in weeks he sensed everything would work out fine. In a small fortified town outside Vienna the onslaught of the Everlim was suddenly halted. As they consumed the ancient walls lattice cubes of iron rose out of the surface of the stones. They burnt the Everlim where they touched them, slicing their huge frames, incapacitating them. Samuel held Hannah's hand tight as they walked through the cemetery. A storm of snow-filled cubes followed the pair as they walked amongst the crispy avenues. "I will return soon my love" he said as they approached the mausoleum. "No, I'm coming with you she whispered". Together they entered the tomb, as it too became wrapped in a snowstorm of glittering cubes. Copyright Š Sean Woodward 2008

www.seanwoodward.com

SUBMIT YOUR WORK TO ESTRONOMICON Send in your short stories for future publication in this eZine. Amaze your friends and family! See the website for more details.

- 93 -


STEVE UPHAM

Frost Bite : Copyright © Steve Upham 2008

- 94 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN

H

e was turning the car away from the high street where Christmas hung above the shops like icicles when the phone started to ring. With a curse, and a cursory glance in the mirrors, he set about disentangling himself from the rush of traffic he’d just waited five minutes to force himself into. Horns competing with one another for hostility and duration threatened to obscure the mobile’s tinny fanfare, and by the time he’d managed to pull up beside the sea wall, they had. It had fallen silent. He’d missed the call, and simply because he had, he knew just who it would have been. Marshall groaned as he dug in his coat, slung on the passenger seat, to drag out the phone and reward himself with the sight of his ex-wife’s name, glaring just as silently and disapprovingly as she’d used to do in their later years together. He caught his reflection in the rear-view mirror. No matter how age ravaged him, it never seemed to take much for him to revert to feeling as inept and guilty as a child. Hating his weakness, he turned away from his own gaze to stare at the black void beyond the promenade where the sea and the sky presumably were, and summoned up his ex-wife. She’d only just called him, so presumably making him wait so long before answering his call was some kind of punishment, and he had a feeling it was the least of what he was putting himself in for. By the time she answered, as tersely as a slap, he’d broken out into a sweat. ‘Yes. Hello.’ She said, two words that somehow between them failed to make a greeting. ‘Michelle. Sorry. It’s me.’ Her silence could be inviting him to elaborate upon that, though it felt almost totally uninviting. He felt pressured into mumbling ‘Roger.’ And felt he’d walked into another of her traps when she snapped ‘I know that. I was beginning to think you didn’t want to speak with me.’ ‘I did earlier. I do now. I was driving.’ When all of this failed to bring any kind of a response he asked ‘Didn’t you get my message?’ ‘I did. That’s why I was calling.’ Her silences were making him itch and squirm as much as her unflinching gazes ever had. He stared out at the cars crawling home along the promenade, at the town centre in the rear-view mirror closing itself down for the day. A clot of teenagers peeled themselves away from a nearby fish-and-chop shop and wandered past, pointing and laughing at him. No, not at him, at the car, at the slogans he’d painted on the doors to advertise himself. ‘What’s so important that you have to miss your son’s - 95 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN birthday?’ ‘That’s hardly fair,’ he retorted, then blundered on. ‘It’s not as if you would have allowed me to take him for long anyway.’ ‘He has school in the morning. His education is important. I would have thought we both wanted him to grow up to make something of himself.’ That felt like too much of a dig for him to resist defensively blurting out ‘I’ve got work. A job, tonight.’ He cracked open the window to allow his mounting frustration to escape like steam. A sea breeze turned his sweat into a cold one but didn’t make him feel any less slimy. He wished he’d been able to afford a b&b for the night, and in which to freshen up before he set out for the job, but that would have taken too much of his earnings, and so it would be another sixty mile drive home at the end of the night. The one good thing was that the night-time roads couldn’t possibly be as crowded as they’d been on the way here and the journey wouldn’t take over two hours this time. All of which reminded him how he really had to be finding the address he was due at in less than twenty minutes. The dashboard clock snipped away another. ‘A useful excuse to conjure up,’ Michelle said, and he bit his tongue. At least the teenagers’ response had been to the slogans, whereas hers was rather more sly. As if he hadn’t worried enough over the years how his love of magic tricks had made him seem to others, though he’d hoped that when he’d been made redundant two years ago and tried to make some kind of a living from them people might take him more seriously. If anything the reverse seemed to be true, and he tried to believe that he was an entertainer in every sense of the word and didn’t need to be taken seriously. ‘It’s no excuse,’ he said simply. ‘It’s a good job and it’ll give me enough to take the lad out to that pizza place he likes this weekend.’ Before Michelle could protest either about his presuming he could see Jerry this weekend, or about feeding him junk food, he went on. ‘I wouldn’t be much use to him without money, now would I?’ ‘Perhaps if you were around for him more then you’d realise he needs more than just presents, Roger.’ ‘That’s a little unfair,’ he answered, his eyes glued to the clock, feeling like he was being lured further and further into an argument whose sole purpose was to make him late. ‘You know I can’t help not working regular hours any more and I have to take the work when I can get it now there’s just me.’ - 96 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN He hadn’t meant that to sound selfish, merely to remind her she now had another man to help her pay off the mortgage on what had used to be their family home, while he’d been relegated to a flat barely big enough for himself, though more than costly enough. Perhaps it had, for she merely asked ‘And where is it that you’re working tonight?’ ‘Seaport. The Golden Embers Retirement Home.’ ‘Sounds lively. You might never leave.’ ‘I’ll have to get there first.’ He replied, determined to be baited no further. ‘I really have to be getting a move on, Michelle. I’m sorry.’ ‘Don’t tell me that. Tell Jerry.’ Marshall blinked at himself in the mirror. ‘You mean he’s there? I thought you’d have let me speak to him sooner.’ ‘No, he’s not here. He’s out with a friend. I meant when you decide you want to see him again.’ ‘I do. I will. Tell him, tell him I love him. I hope you both know that. Tell him I’ll call him tomorrow. Tell him happy birthday, again.’ With the call ended, he took a moment to bury the feeling of emptiness he’d been left with, and urged himself into some kind of action. The traffic had already thinned out enough for him to pick up speed along the seafront, and he took his eyes off the road long enough to claim the A-Z and prop it open on his lap. He and Michelle had met fairly late in life, he supposed, both being at the end of their 30’s, and he’d imagined that would have made the relationship more secure, but if anything it had meant that when it had begun to crumble, neither had fought for it with the passion of youth. Ten years on, and with a son of almost that age, they’d parted just after he’d been made redundant, and he’d felt exactly that, in every way. The old car spluttered its way through a series of increasingly wider and less traffic-clogged streets, and the clock reminded him how little chance he had of making it on time. With the crowd being elderly, would they be more patient with his lateness, or even forgotten that he was due, or would they be cranky and ready for bed? It was true that most of his gigs were for children’s parties. Children too old to simply gaze in wonder and yet too young to remain polite and patient as he struggled to capture their attention, and parents who saw him as little more than a novelty babysitter whilst they fled the room for an hour to pickle their livers. There’d been a handful of working-men’s clubs, - 97 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN who’d seemed to resent him as soon as they saw he hadn’t brought an assistant in a bikini, and once a bachelor party where he’d found himself a warm-up act to a stripper even wearier of it all than he himself was starting to feel, and not much younger either. He’d never performed for an exclusively aged audience before, but nor had he ever turned a job down. He couldn’t afford to, but doubted that a roomful of wrinklies would be the death of him. Indeed, perhaps they would be the audience he always wished children would be – wide-eyed and cheerful. If he ever got there he might find out. Two minutes beyond the time he’d agreed to begin and he was still nosing the car through the slush-covered streets. If there’d been anywhere he could have asked for directions he would have stopped, but he’d left all the corner-shops and fast-food bars behind. These streets were lined with imposingly large and unlit houses set way back in dignified gardens. He was growing increasingly desperate, and about to pull over and call the operator for the number he’d neglected to copy down when the home had booked him when he saw that the next street was the one that he wanted, and the glow he’d at first taken for some kind of belated bonfire was a lit building at the far end. Allowing himself a faint smile of relief he drove towards it and pulled up outside. Marshall switched the engine off, and the home seemed to take a step towards the car. He realised how dark, how silent, the rest of the street was – a blessing for the elderly residents, he should imagine. The building was representative of the area – grand, detached three or four-storey Victorian residences. He let himself quickly out of the car and into his coat, then retrieved his large holdall from the boot, full of hopefully all the props he would need to get through the night – especially since he’d cut back on the drinking that had blossomed after his divorce until he’d realised he was turning into what Michelle imagined him to be. He slammed the boot loudly, as if closing the lid on any more unhelpful thoughts, and without further ado turned to stride up the hedge-lined path to the front door. The early December air had finally sharpened after an unseasonably mild autumn, and there was a smokiness that he normally associated with that time of year, and for the second time in the past handful of minutes he found himself thinking of fires. He lined himself up on the doorstep to jab at the doorbell, and barely a second later a light came on and a bulky silhouette jerked forwards in the door’s glass panel. He was - 98 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN reminded of a dozen scenes from hokey films where the doors of country houses were answered by lumbering and disfigured butlers. Preparing himself for such a sight, he was caught off-guard when the door opened slightly and some kind of female face pressed itself into the gap. He was ready to apologise, though whether for his lateness or his stunned expression he couldn’t be sure, but the woman spoke first. ‘Our Mr Marshall. Fresh blood, excellent, excellent. You’re the one whose come to bring some life to us, aren’t you?’ ‘Er… I’m…’ he managed to say, but then an arm as thick as his thigh came around the door and swept him into the hallway. He was assailed by a rush of sensations – the dimness of the interior, the dust that coated every surface, the carpets whose patterns would have been unbearably lurid had they not been tamed by age. Just ahead, a winding staircase led up into further gloom, whilst various closed doors on this level led to who knew what. The smokiness had followed him inside, but there were also the scents of boiled vegetables, air freshener, furniture polish, the acid tinge of dust, and various layers of further less identifiable and less pleasant smells. He turned in a slow circle, taking in as much as he could, before facing the woman again. She was even bigger than he’d first realised, for she was stood hunched and still loomed above him. Her face was fascinatingly large, seeming to sprout directly from shoulders like cannonballs. Her arms hung down like an ape’s, and her body was large and sexless beneath what he assumed was some kind of uniform but may as well have been a shroud. ‘Have you eaten? Are you hungry? Can we get you anything?’ ‘No,’ he answered, resisting the urge to repeat it for each of the questions. ‘if you could just show me to the room where we’ll be… ah… so I can set up?’ ‘Of course, of course. We have been looking forward to you joining us. There’s not much excitement around here these days. You’d think this lot were already dead, I warn you now. Do come and meet the old dears won’t you? They’ve been waiting for you.’ That surely needn’t strike him as ominous as it did, and he followed the woman’s wide white back as she lumbered along the hallway to push open a door at the far end. As soon as Marshall approached, he heard a dozen variously blurred voices chatter into life at once and felt as though he’d disturbed some kind of nest. The impression was reinforced as he stepped into - 99 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN the room. A roomful of old people, blind, hungry, needy, roused by a stranger stumbling into their midst. A nestful of hungry chicks, he thought, as the wrinkled pink faces patched with ash-white hair turned up to him. Eyes squinted, or remained unseeing, gnarled fingers clenched on lap-blankets, mouths chewed on nothing, bodies that ranged from obese to skeletal rocked and twitched. Most had paper hats from Christmas crackers perched somewhere on their heads. He wondered if they’d dressed for him. ‘Pudding,’ a voice as thin as a reed called out. ‘Pudding, pudding.’ A blind face turned, wormlike, towards him. A tiny hand reached out and he stepped back involuntarily, bumping into a woman sat behind the door, who chortled at his predicament. A frail man who would have towered to the ceiling if he’d unfolded himself from his armchair grinned down at the floor and mumbled something about still being hot. The large nurse stepped into the centre of the room and commenced slapping her hands together, a noise that made him cringe and which eventually seemed to draw whatever attention the residents could muster. ‘Here’s our entertainment for the night, everyone, like you’ve been promised. This is our Mr Marshall and he’s got some tricks up his sleeve for us. In a few minutes he’s going to perform so I want you all to make him feel very welcome here, okay?’ There was a smattering of applause which soon died out amidst general confusion, or forgetfulness. As he crossed the room to where the nurse was setting up a small folding table beside a Christmas tree so garishly lit it looked like a spaceship, they began discussing him loudly. ‘What’s he got up his sleeve?’ ‘Looks almost ready to be one of us, doesn’t he?’ ‘Is he married?’ ‘Do you think he’ll play with us?’ ‘Thank you,’ Marshall said as the nurse left him to arrange the table, and left the room. He set his holdall on the floor and extracted a black cloth which he managed to fold into a size appropriate for the tiny folding table. He would usually have set out all his props ready, but there just wasn’t space. He arranged everything he would need for the major tricks and left the rest in his holdall for the time being. He shrugged off his coat to reveal his suit and bow tie, much to the approval of the nearest residents and he felt ludicrously like - 100 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN some kind of geriatric’s stripper. The tall fellow had been right – it was like a furnace in here, or perhaps it was just his nervousness. A small woman wrapped in shawls like a cocoon stared at him until he left what he was doing and stepped across to her. ‘Do you have children?’ she asked, her eyes watery, her skin white as snow. ‘Yes. I have a son.’ ‘That’s nice.’ She answered, and stared until he felt obliged to ask ‘Have you?’ ‘I had children.’ ‘Surely you still have.’ ‘No. To them I’m dead.’ His mouth flapped uselessly until her neighbour, a woman as old and large as a hill, with bristling whiskers shouted ‘What did she say you were called?’ ‘Man… Manfred Gold.’ He stammered. ‘That’s not what she said.’ She turned to a gentleman sat at her other side as though he might offer more of an explanation, but he merely nodded a bald head threaded with wispy red veins and opened and closed his toothless mouth like a goldfish. Marshall took the opportunity to flee back to his preparations. Manfred Gold, he mused. The Magnificent Manfred. Whatever had possessed him to choose such a stupid stage-name? What’s in a name, he thought, probably not much if one couldn’t remember one’s own, which most of these old folk must be guilty of. ‘Chew.’ A man who looked like a starved Father Christmas carefully enunciated. ‘Chew. Chew.’ ‘Listen to him. He thinks he’s a train,’ chortled one tiny old lady, nudging a clone of herself in the ribs. ‘An old boiler perhaps.’ ‘A steam train. That must be why he stinks of smoke.’ Marshall bent lower over his preparations. It did smell strongly of smoke – he’d expected to see somebody puffing away on a pipe, or at least a fire in the hearth where there was only blackened stone. This place couldn’t have seen a fire in many years. ‘Chew. Chew. Won’t chew sit down?’ ‘We’re all sat down, Alfred.’ ‘Won’t chew sit down?’ - 101 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN ‘He wants the man to sit down.’ ‘Do you want the man to sit down, Alfred?’ ‘Won’t chew sit down?’ Marshall didn’t want to have to turn around and become involved in increasingly mindless distractions, but he was saved by the reappearance of the colossal nurse, and a smaller wiry companion. They stood on opposite sides of the doorway, presumably not to make him feel as trapped as he did, and the smaller nurse flicked the lightswitch to draw attention, though in those few seconds he was reminded of flickering flames, and the old faces that lined the room turned even more skull-like. ‘Would you like a sweet?’ someone asked, just before everyone fell silent. ‘All right everyone, best behaviour now. Our new friend has come a long way to amuse us tonight, isn’t that nice of him? We do hope he’ll stay and give us all he’s got, so let’s all enjoy him and his bag of tricks now.’ With that, all the eyes – seeing and unseeing – were upon him, and he coughed nervously, having started to feel as patronised as the child the nurse must have imagined she was talking to. Faces wrinkled as dried apples bobbed towards him, paper hats slipped precariously, mouths sucked and cracked at boiled sweets or dentures. His hands fumbled on the props for his first trick, he couldn’t form the knot that it required. He blundered into one of his standard jokes, but only one person laughed, and he was as unnerved by not being able to locate who it was as by them not stopping when they should. Had the nurse dimmed the lights? Certainly much gloom seemed to have been added to the room, presumably to highlight his performance, though he was finding it hard to see. At his back, the tree cast unpleasant lights – blood red, a sickly yellow or green. His shaking fingers tugged at the knot and the string opened out into two separate pieces, though this brought him only a look of such sympathy from the old twins that he had to restrain himself from telling them he hadn’t broken it. A stupid trick, he thought as he dropped the strings to the table, hardly astonishing. He blustered through his piece with the various coloured handkerchiefs, which brought a few chortles (mainly when he dropped one of them) and then into a series of card tricks. ‘Was this the card you chose?’ he asked the vein-headed man, and bit his lip when he answered. ‘Yes. No. It might have been. I can’t remember.’ One woman in the shadows by the fireplace was rocking gleefully, almost - 102 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN manically, hugging her knees. Another was yawning continuously, making Marshall want to do so himself. A man with a profuse beard and eyebrows but no other hair was scratching at the arms of his chair with unpleasantly long fingernails. In the gloom they all looked somehow charred, he thought, and brittle as firewood. The lights from the tree threw strange castes onto the faces of those nearest to him, deepening their wrinkles, turning their skin unnatural and unhealthy shades. The nurses bookending the doorway felt threatening, rather than reassuring. He had the ludicrous notion that when he tried to leave they wouldn’t let him, and treat him as another resident. In the dim and sputtering light he could see too much of their teeth and eyes, making them appear predatory. Somebody in his aged audience was rustling paper, or sweet wrappers. He abandoned a joke halfway through and picked up a magic wand – something the children loved and even the grown-ups usually greeted with nostalgic laughter – but his current audience were neither. It wasn’t paper rustling, he realised, it was fire - and that was what he could smell and probably what was making him sweat like the goose that knew it was dinner. He was being foolish – there was no fire, and if anything was making him sweat, it was the mounting intensity of the roomful of gazes. Marshall became uncomfortably aware that it didn’t matter how terrible his act was because it was no longer, and perhaps never had been, the attraction. He himself seemed the single focus of the old folk’s attention. As he performed more tricks, becoming increasingly careless with them – and caring less about it – he looked from one pair of eyes to another and all were staring unblinkingly back at his rather than what his hands were doing. In one pair of eyes he thought he saw flames dancing, but it could only have been the reflection of the garish Christmas lights. Another pair of eyes seemed as completely black as a spider’s, no detail, no whites, no soul, but when he looked back up again he couldn’t find who they had belonged to. He was going through his act almost subconsciously now, it felt like a pretence that he had to keep up and what was worse was that he felt everyone was aware of his deception. He felt like a rabbit trying to distract a hungry wolf, in reality just biding its time. Bones, or walking sticks, rattled in the shadows. A voice dry as ash laughed, though he couldn’t remember having made a joke, or indeed having said anything at all. He was booked to perform for an hour; only - 103 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN forty minutes of which had so far managed to drag themselves by, but who was going to notice? With a flourish, he ended his current trick as though it were a show-stopper, and the room was plunged into blackness. In that instant he saw the old folk even more skeletal than they were; crawling through the darkness towards him, clambering over one another in their haste to get at him. Their skin loose and blackened, except where their old bones seemed close to breaking through, or in some cases had already done just that. He saw the totally black eyes, domed skulls with cobweb wisps of hair, wrinkled mouths full of dentures that were more like knives, and then the absurd vision was over, and the room was as well-lit as it had ever been. Gnarled, knuckly hands rattled together in applause. One large woman slapped hers together so rigorously that her fleshy arms billowed like sails. A man in a blazer and a wheelchair rolled backwards and forwards, as though bumping against the wall was the most appreciation he could show. The fellow who’d been clawing at the arms of his chair continued to do so, though his bare feet scrabbled at the carpet in excitement, and Marshall was repulsed to notice his lengthy yellow toenails digging in and bending against the floor. He had to wonder at such appreciation, and did so as he took a perfunctory bow – more from habit than any show of gratitude – and began stuffing his props back into the holdall even before the nurses called everyone to attention. The residents had seemed so unamused and even distracted during his performance that their applause seemed some overly-enthusiastic way of placating him. ‘I’m sure we’d all like to thank our special guest Mr Manfred Gold for coming out to give us our pleasure tonight,’ the large nurse rumbled, though hadn’t they done just that? It was all the thanks he required, along with his payment, and he was about to chase the latter up when a tufted pink head turned towards him and implored ‘Stay with us.’ The words repulsed him more than he could have thought possible. He flapped his mouth helplessly and stared towards the nurses, as the call was joined by more as if it had roused them from various toothless mouths. ‘Yes. Stay a little longer.’ ‘Don’t go.’ ‘Play a game with us.’ Each request was increasingly unappealing, but neither of the nurses came - 104 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN to his aid. As he stood with his holdall clutched to his chest like a shield, gazing to them across a sea of pleading faces that reminded him more than ever of hungry chicks in a nest, the smaller one merely said ‘Mr Gold will have to decide for himself if he wants to play with us.’ So much about that sentence unsettled him. Not just the way she’d said his name as though he was trying to trick them all with it, but the reference to ‘us’ as though they were all about to be joined in some unpleasant game, staff, residents and visitor. He was acting foolish, he knew, just the kind of behaviour Michelle would have rolled her eyes at, and it was the thought of his ex-wife’s omnipotent disapproval that encouraged him to stay a while longer. ‘All right,’ he answered, and the room erupted into more applause, frail hoots, shrill cheers, and general rattling. Even the large nurse was grinning and clapping meatily, and he twitched a smile of his own as some response and hoped it came across as something more than helpless. Limbs frail as kindling reached out to him. Someone took his holdall from him but he didn’t see who, or where it went. He was dismayed at the thought of ending up as confused and helpless as the residents themselves. He scolded himself, tried to believe that they were harmless old folk who had little amusement or colour in their lives; he should be happy to provide a small taste of it for them. ‘What shall we play?’ he asked. ‘Blind Man’s Buff,’ a gruff voice muttered from somewhere behind a beard grey as cinder. His ruddy-faced neighbour waved long fingers at him. ‘It’s Bluff.’ ‘Buff.’ The idea of flailing about in the dark, as blind as several of the old folk, wasn’t in the least appealing, but he swallowed his distaste and nodded. ‘All right then. I’ll be it shall I?’ ‘You’re it all right.’ He couldn’t tell who’d spoken, but the small nurse was coming towards him with a length of cloth to blindfold him. As she shut off his sight, she called out ‘Don’t all get too rowdy now, it’s getting late.’ ‘That’s when we have the most fun,’ the bearded man answered, and Marshall was shut into blindness with that. His other senses must be compensating, for the scent of smoke was stronger than before. Perhaps the old folk would underestimate his hearing - 105 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN though, for already he could hear a multitude of excited whispering from all around, and a rustling and crackling that could only be somebody trying to hide near the gifts around the Christmas tree. He held himself still and tried to decipher the voices, as incessant and overlapping as flames. ‘…behind him…’ ‘… do you think he knows?’ ‘… it burns…’ ‘… not yet, let him find…’ He felt something like a bag of bones brush by his leg, and flinched away. Whoever it was must have been crawling on hands and knees, though moving at a rate he wouldn’t have imagined any of them capable of even when stood up. He stepped back and bumped into something thinner than any human limb should be – someone’s walking stick, no doubt – and then raised his hands to ward off the impression that clawed fingers were reaching out to his face. There was a cackle from immediately behind him, so close he should have been able to feel the breath of whoever was stood there. He turned carefully and reached out, determined to at least make a pretence of playing the game, but they were as elusive as smoke. Something unpleasantly slimy pressed against his face – surely not a kiss? It couldn’t have been: to have come from such an angle whoever had bestowed it would have had to stoop from high above him. He was walking into things, that was all, the room seemed to be closing in around him as though it had become little bigger than the darkness he’d been blindfolded into. More whispers and secretive – he tried not to believe malicious – laughter. The smell of smoke was overwhelming; had he stumbled towards the disused fireplace? He was growing hotter, but that could only be his sense of awkwardness. He lunged out as something brushed past him, and his hands closed upon something dry and scaly as burnt wood. A shrill voice screamed in his ear, but it was with pleasure. A pleasure that sounded more awful than it should, to him. He whipped off his blindfold and saw a circle of old folk around him, as though closing in for the kill. ‘He got me!’ chortled the crone in his grasp. He was dismayed how unlike a human she appeared. Her head may have been carved from a turnip and bewigged in candy-floss. ‘What are you going to do with me now?’ Marshall released her and stepped briskly backwards before he could give into the - 106 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN instinct to push her away. ‘Whose go is it now?’ he asked, looking beyond the ring of heads for the nurses, but they’d left him to it yet again. He had hoped his question might prompt them into reminding the residents how late it was getting. ‘Not that,’ the man who’d been clawing at his chair spoke next. ‘A different game.’ ‘Hide and go seek.’ ‘Yes. We like that one.’ ‘We’re coming to get you!’ ‘Yes! Hide! Do!’ ‘We’ll count to one hundred.’ Before he had any chance to respond, the residents had all covered their eyes - even the ones he’d assumed to be blind were in the spirit - and all started counting more or less in unison. More than a game, the mass chanting reminded him of some sinister ritual, and he swiped his brow with a sleeve. It really was becoming unbearably hot in here. Before they’d shouted ‘five’ he was pushing his way through the circle and back out into the main hallway. There was still no sign of the nurses, but at least this game got him away from the old folk’s overwhelming enthusiasm, and he could breath a little easier as long as he was out of their grasp. He took a moment to get his bearings; a doorway ahead must lead to the kitchen judging from the heat and lingering smell of old roast meat, but he needed no more of that. The one beneath the stairs could only lead to a store-room or a cellar, neither of which invited him. The ragged chanting reached ten as he fled to the foot of the stairs, but what was the noise he’d heard beneath the chorus of voices? If he’d been less distracted he might have recognised it. He pushed himself up the stairs as swiftly and silently as he could, trying to recall the last time he’d played such a game. Despite himself, and his racing heart, he had to suppress a grin. This wasn’t all bad. Who’d have thought the old things had such life in them? The first floor was in darkness. He couldn’t see a lightswitch, and the voices from the stairwell told him he’d used a quarter of his time. He’d waste no more of it. He tried the first door that he came to and poked his head inside but withdrew it quickly when a shape started to squirm beneath the bedsheets in the dark. He hadn’t realised any of the residents would be in their beds already. The movement had put him in mind of a giant grub disturbed beneath a rock. - 107 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN He hurried along the corridor, and suddenly realised what the noise he’d heard had been. He was fumbling inside his pocket even as he pushed open the next door, and so was unable to pull it shut as immediately as he should have done when he saw that this too was occupied. He hadn’t woken this occupant, at least, for he could see a scarecrow-like silhouette already lurching about in the dimness. Marshall whispered ‘sorry’ as loudly as he dared and stepped forwards to pull the door closed again. He’d assumed the burnt orange light was coming from a streetlamp beyond the window, though for a moment it had seemed to be flickering about inside the room, and he couldn’t see a window anywhere in here. As he closed the door and fled deeper into the house, he pulled his mobile phone from his pocket. That’s what he’d heard all right; he’d missed another call from Michelle. His first thought was one of annoyance that she would choose to disturb him whilst he was working, then he worried that her doing so must mean it was serious. He’d reached the end of the corridor, and hid himself behind a heavy pair of floor-length drapes that smelled smoke-damaged whilst he pressed the button that would dredge up the message she’d left for him. He’d thought the drapes were curtains, but there was only a small alcove behind them. As he raised the phone he couldn’t remember seeing a single window inside the building. So many emotions churned inside of him that he felt momentarily weak, and slumped back against the wall. A robotic voice gave way to his less warmer ex-wife’s, and the message was almost over before he could even understand what he was hearing. ‘I’ve always known you to come up with lame excuses for yourself Roger, but I didn’t think you were the type to resort to outright lying. And not to get you out of your son’s birthday…’ The trace of hurt was so unlike her that it surprised him almost as much as whatever she was actually trying to tell him. He pulled his face at the phone, and at that moment he started to feel cold for the first time since he’d arrived at the rest home. ‘I know you’ll resent me for checking up on you but I would have been glad if just for once you’d have proved me wrong. I think we’ll leave it to you to tell Jerry his own father would go to such lengths to avoid him.’ Her brief silence allowed him to hear the crackling which at first he thought - 108 -


JOSEPH FREEMAN was coming from the phone, and the numeric chanting echoing up the stairwell, increasingly excited as it neared its climax and somehow hungry sounding. ‘There is no Golden Embers Retirement Home in Seaport, you fool. At least there isn’t any more. It burned down on Christmas fifteen years ago.’ The silence caved in as more than her message ended. He would have called her back – to protest his innocence, to declare his love for the family that was more lost to him than it had ever been, to beg for some kind of help. But he didn’t dare make a sound, for downstairs the chanting had stopped and given way to the sound of things as dry and brittle as sticks clattering up the stairs, the babble of excited laughter and unintelligible gabbling, all rushing upwards like flames. He wished he’d chosen a better hiding place where they could never have found him, and could only hope this one would somehow be good enough. They’d waited so very long for some entertainment, and now – ready or not – here they came to find him. Copyright © Joseph Freeman 2008

www.josephfreeman.co.uk

- 109 -


RECOMMENDED MAGAZINE

Get your festive copy of Twisted Tongue magazine now!

www.twistedtongue.co.uk - 110 -

Estronomicon Christmas 2008  

The eZine of fantasy, sci-fi and horror

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you